By Julian Hattem - 09/29/13 10:00 AM EDT
Conservatives are taking aim at new regulations that they say amount to government meddling in the hiring practices of federal contractors. [WATCH VIDEO]
A House subcommittee is putting the spotlight on Labor Department rules finalized this month that set targets for government contractors to hire veterans and people with disabilities.
“Quotas and more paperwork will do more to promote costly litigation than the hiring of our nation’s most vulnerable workers,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said in a statement announcing Wednesday’s hearing of the Education and the Workforce subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which he chairs.
The Labor Department notes that the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, is higher that the rest of the country. Officials say a “substantial disparity” in unemployment also exists for individuals with disabilities.
Veterans advocates say it’s the right thing to care for people who have risked their lives for their country.
“My feeling is that veterans have served their country,” Joe Sharpe, the director of the American Legion’s economic division, said. “And I think when you’re serving your country, everybody needs to be serving in one capacity or another. And by employers looking at hiring veterans, again you’re serving your country one way or the other,” he said.
Sharpe added that veterans are disadvantaged because they are out of the workforce for stretches at a time, leaving them unable to network and gain new skills.
The twin regulations, set to go into effect in March, set hiring benchmarks for the percentage of veterans and people with disabilities that government contractors should hire.
Companies will have a goal of making sure that 7 percent of their hires are people with disabilities, and would set a level for veterans based on the amount of veterans currently in the workforce, currently 8 percent.
The requirement for veterans will be used to determine how well contractors are complying with existing affirmative action rules. Not meeting the benchmark for people with disabilities will not lead to a fine or penalty, however.
Instead, the 7 percent threshold is meant to provide accountability and help employers in their hiring decisions, the department says.
Still, opponents of the rule argue that it amounts to a de facto quota.
“They have the power to be intrusive and expensive to contractors that they believe are not playing ball on this,” said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “If the initiative means anything, it means that they are signaling to ‘Please be one of the ones that we think is trying to make these benchmarks, because if we think that you’re one of the ones we think are not trying to make the benchmarks, you will be hearing from us.’”
“It’s not a quota,” said Mark Perriello, the president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “The rule sets an inspirational target of 7 percent for federal contractors. It is not a hard and fast number; all that companies need to do is put in a solid, good faith effort to reach that 7 percent.”
Sharpe added that the rules are even more critical while government funding is in doubt, which could cause economic pain for communities near military bases.
“It makes it harder for those states that rely on federal funding,” Sharpe said. “So when you have these disruptions, states like Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina — it has a negative impact on their local economy.”
Still, not all veterans advocacy groups were entirely behind the measure.
“We certainly understand why some contractors would be critical of the new paperwork requirements and the new clerical requirements behind it,” said Ryan Gallucci, the deputy legislative director of the VFW. He added that his organization supports the broader effort to encourage contractors to hire more veterans.
Republican lawmakers have said that the public did not have enough time to weigh in on the rules when they were first proposed in 2011.
As with any regulation, the public had two months to submit comments about the government contractor restrictions. Lawmakers asked for additional time to weigh in, but the agency granted less time than they wanted.
Supporters of the rules say that Republican complaints about the comment period sound like last-ditch quibbles.
“Whenever people don’t get the outcome they want in a rulemaking process they always take issue with how much time they had to provide comment,” said Perriello. “Everyone had fair opportunity to provide input into this rule.”
The head of the Labor Department office in charge of federal contractor compliance programs, Patricia Shiu, has agreed to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.