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Witness Testimony of Mr. Eliseo “Al” Cantu, Jr., Chair, Texas Veterans Commission

GREETING

Good Morning, Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and Members of the Committee.  For the record, my name is Eliseo “Al” Cantu, Jr., Chair of the Texas Veterans Commission.  I am humbled by the invitation to testify before you today.  On behalf of the Texas Veterans Commission, I would like to thank the Committee for this opportunity and for your interest in the efforts the state of Texas has undertaken in order to serve the 1.7 million Veterans in our state. 

I am accompanied today by Mr. Shawn Deabay, Director of the Texas Veterans Commission’s Veterans Employment Services (VES) program.  Mr. Deabay has worked in the VES program for nearly 13 years, working his way up from a Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP) Specialist and Local Veterans Employment Representative (LVER). In 2007, he was named the Texas LVER of the year by the American Legion and recognized as the National LVER of the Year by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).  After being promoted to Regional Manager for the East Texas Region, his region won the Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) Employment Distinguished Services Award.  He became the program’s Operations Director, and eventually Program Director in 2011. 

My testimony will provide you with information regarding Veterans employment in Texas with details on how we have implemented the Veterans Re-training Assistance Program (VRAP) as well as our view on the roles and responsibilities of LVERs and DVOP Specialists.

TEXAS VETERANS COMMISSION

The Texas Veterans Commission is the Veterans advocacy agency for the state of Texas.  Our mission is to advocate for and provide superior service to Veterans in the areas of claims assistance, employment services, education, and grant funding that will significantly improve the quality of life for all Texas Veterans, their families and survivors.  The Texas Veterans Commission provides these services through four program areas: Claims Representation and Counseling, Veterans Employment Services, Veterans Education Program, and the Fund for Veterans’ Assistance.  Additionally, the Texas Veterans Commission has three initiatives that connect Veterans with services: Veterans Communication and Outreach, Women Veterans Initiative, and the Veterans Entrepreneur Program.  

No other state has centralized all of these program areas within their state’s Veterans agency. Texas is becoming recognized for aggressively leading on Veteran issues. National leaders have referred to the “Texas-model” when advocating for the integration of Veterans services.  This integration allows the agency to remain Veteran focused, with no competing priorities.

VETERANS EMPLOYMENT SERVICES (VES) SUCCESS

The Texas Veterans Commission’s VES program assists Veterans with obtaining long-term meaningful employment.  In the most recent 12-month reporting period, our LVERs and DVOP Specialists assisted 69,080 Veterans, with 38,714 of those Veterans obtaining employment, and earned $1.4 billion in wages.  This has a positive impact on Veterans and their families and has significantly contributed to the lower Veteran unemployment rate in Texas.

The Texas Veterans Commission received $11,573,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Services (DOL-VETS) to operate the Jobs for Veterans State Grant (JVSG).  As a result of the efforts of LVER and DVOP Specialist staff, 221 Veterans obtained employment for every one LVER/DVOP staff person.  Texas accounts for 18% of the nation’s Veterans entering into employment after receiving assistance from VER staff while spending 7% of the federal funding from the Jobs for Veterans State Grant (JSVG).

Our goal is to assist as many Veterans as we can while continuing to provide high-quality services. There will be thousands of military service men and women coming home over the next few years, which will increase the need for our services. We owe it to our nation’s heroes to assist them with their employment needs when they come home. Employment stabilizes Veterans and their family’s lives, allowing them to make the difficult transition from military to civilian life.

I commend Congressional leaders on your efforts in passing VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, especially the Veterans Re-training Assistance Program (VRAP). This program allows older Veterans with limited skills and training to receive much needed assistance. LVERs and DVOP Specialists have and will continue to outreach to as many Veterans as they can to ensure there is a vast awareness in Texas. As of October 18, 2012, there were a total of 4,197 approved VRAP applications in Texas with 1,194 Veterans actively participating in training.

LVER/DVOP SPECIALIST ROLES AND RESPONSIBILIITIES

As the Director of our VES program, Mr. Deabay, sits on the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, Veteran Affairs Committee.  During their most recent meeting in August, the committee members were briefed by John Moran, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations and Management for DOL-VETS on changes to the LVER and DVOP Specialist’s roles and responsibilities. While we appreciate the desire to improve the JSVG and even the focus of some of the changes, we are concerned that other changes will be detrimental to Veterans across the nation. We must voice our concerns regarding policy changes that adversely impact our ability to serve the Veterans of Texas. The Texas Veterans Commission is completely opposed to any recommended changes to the VES program which would eliminate, or even place limits upon, our ability to see and serve Veterans.

One of the proposed changes is that DVOP Specialists will be limited to serving no more than 20% of the Veterans in the Workforce System. States serving more than 20% could be placed on a Corrective Action Plan and face possible sanctions. VES exists to serve our nation’s heroes. Placing limitations on the number of Veterans that can be seen by our staff adversely impacts Veteran’s ability to locate and retain long-term and meaningful employment.

DVOP Specialists will also be limited to strictly case management activities and will not provide services to Veterans not enrolled into case management. In Texas, the non-VES workforce staff of our partners at the Texas Workforce Commission has budget challenges of their own. An assumption that the Veteran population can be seamlessly absorbed by these partners is overly optimistic. The initial assessment of a Veteran’s needs is an extremely import function and includes a one-on-one, in-depth evaluation to identify significant barriers to employment and a plan to address the needs. This assessment should be conducted by VES staff whenever possible, as VES staff are specifically trained to identify these barriers. In Texas, all VES staff members are Veterans themselves and there is immense value in Veterans being served and assisted by fellow Veterans. Generally, VES staff can devote more time providing quality one-on-one services, which helps those ultimately enrolled in case management.

LVERs will not serve Veterans; they will only be allowed to perform employer outreach. Title 38 U.S.C. § 4102 clearly states that one of the priorities of a LVER is to assist recently separated Veterans along with outreach to employers. Employer outreach is a vital part of the employment equation, and Texas has embraced this by focusing four of its LVERs on employer outreach as Veteran Business Representatives, a change that was difficult to get DOL-VETS to embrace.  Yet we know that locating employment opportunities only fills half of the need.  Moreover, this change severely impacts rural areas and simply moving an LVER into a DVOP Specialist’s role is not the answer.  Then we will have employers not being outreached.

The performance expectation for the entered employment and retention rates for recently separated Veterans will be removed. The VES program at TVC is dedicated to helping any and all Veterans, with an emphasis on recently separated and disabled Veterans. The national unemployment rate for Gulf War II Era Veterans has remained over 10% for 27 of the past 36 months, peaking at 15.2% in January 2011. Now is not the time to reduce or eliminate a focus on recently separated Veterans. TVC takes a proactive approach by actively seeking our recently separated Veterans, who may not immediately seek assistance through local workforce centers. TVC monitors new UI claimants, outreaches to colleges and universities, and supports other outreach efforts in order to ensure all Veterans know about our services.

DOL-VETS wants fewer LVERs and will require states to convert the majority of their LVERs to DVOP specialists. The duties performed by LVERs require an entirely different skill set than the duties performed by a DVOP Specialists. Simply changing the job duties of an LVER to a DVOP is not realistic and will result in a significant increase in staff turnover and loss of valuable experience and knowledge helping Veterans.

The LVER and DVOP Specialist programs were established to ensure services are received by Veterans. One of the major reasons for our success, and an element that cannot be understated is Veterans serving Veterans. Veterans should be afforded the opportunity to be served by highly trained VES staff with an understanding and expertise in the transition from military to the civilian workforce.

VES staff can provide the following because of their military experience and their specialized Veteran employment training:

·        VES staff know what Veteran services are available locally

·        VES staff generally can spend more time with a Veteran to obtain a true assessment

·        VES staff can advise the Veteran of possible USERRA rights

·        VES staff can advise the Veteran of possible Veterans Preference eligibility

·        VES staff can assist the Veteran with translating military occupation to civilian skills

·        VES staff is familiar with local Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) and Veteran Workforce Investment Program (VWIP) grants

·        VES staff knows about REALifelines, VR&E, Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Servicemembers (UCX), Homeless Veterans’ Prevention Project, and everything else in their community that might benefit the Veteran sitting at their desk

HOW TO IMPROVE VETERANS EMPLOYMENT SERVICES ACROSS THE NATION

Require Veterans serving Veterans.  Every LVER and every DVOP Specialist must be a Veteran.  This requirement was part of legislation approved by the House of Representatives earlier this year and must be incorporated into the Jobs for Veterans State Grant. 

Create Supportive Supervising Structures.  While each state must have the ability to determine the supervising structure that works for that state, DOL-VETS should require that coordination and reporting for the Jobs for Veterans State Grant is directly to the senior executive responsible for the grant in the state.  Moreover, depending on the size of the Jobs for Veterans, it might be the only program that person is responsible for.  The Jobs for Veterans State Grant and serving Veterans deserves no less. 

Reward Performance.  Instead of a focus on dictating what states can do, DOL-VETS should work with the states to develop meaningful performance standards and add a performance element to the funding formula.  Then states that perform at a high level should receive increased funding rather than the current system which actually punishes states that do a good job and rewards those that do not.

Require Input from the States.  The policy changes being contemplated by DOL-VETS were not developed in partnership with the states.  DOL-VETS should be required to have a working group of small, medium, and large, high-performing states.  The focus of this working group would be on how all states can improve employment services to Veterans and provide recommendations to DOL-VETS with a focus on best practices.

Encourage innovation.  DOL-VETS must allow states to be innovative and to create methods to serve as many Veterans as they can, while continuing high quality.  When Texas wanted to four of our LVERs to serve as Veteran Business Representatives and work with employers, DOL-VETS resisted this change, which they now embrace in the extreme. DOL-VETS should not be placing limits on the services that states provide Veterans or choosing which parts of the law governing these programs it believes are more important.

CLOSING

In closing, I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to share this perspective with you today.  TVC has demonstrated the capability to have a positive impact on Veterans employment issues.  With the support of this Committee, we believe that the VES program in Texas can continue to develop innovative and effective ways to improve the employment services provided to Veterans in our state.