Bills Aim to Make Veterans a Protected Class in Housing, Employment Discrimination Laws
Lawmakers have renewed a bipartisan, bicameral effort to get veterans added to the list of those protected by law against housing or employment discrimination.
Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) introduced a bill last year to end housing discrimination against service members and veterans, but it had no co-sponsors and died in committee. In the House, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) introduced the Veterans, Women, Families with Children, and Persons With Disabilities Housing Fairness Act of 2011, drawing progressive co-sponsors but not making it out of committee.
This time, the effort is focused squarely on vets and is coordinated between the upper and lower chambers as well as veterans organizations.
In the Senate, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced the Veterans and Service Members Employment Rights and Housing Act of 2013, which would allow veterans who feel they've been discriminated against because of their military service the right to appeal their grievances to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It would amend the Fair Housing Act, which currently aims to protect people discriminated against "because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin" to add ‘‘or because the person is a member of the uniformed services."
“Shamefully, veterans who served our country return from deployment and too often struggle to find a job or a place to call home,” Blumenthal said. “By making military service a protected status, this bill will ensure that those who sacrificed to keep us safe are not discriminated against when they return home.”
In the House, Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced a companion bill, the Servicemember and Veterans Employment Rights and Housing Act, with a Republican co-sponsor: Jim Renacci of Ohio.
“Our service members have fought hard to protect the freedoms we are so blessed to enjoy in America, often risking their lives in the process,” said Renacci. “Under no circumstances should the brave men and women of our Armed Forces face job or housing discrimination based on the service they provided our country, especially considering the sacrifices their families have already made in their absence."
"I am proud to join with this bipartisan group of representatives and senators to ensure our veterans are not punished once they return home having safely completed their missions.”
Some states already have laws on the books offering veterans legal protection or making veterans a protected class, as in Washington state.
The bill's proponents argue that a comprehensive federal law is needed to protect vets from discrimination, even though some cases may fall under current statutes including the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. That law, they say, still isn't covering reservists who miss out on job opportunities or promotions because employers are wary of future deployments, and doesn't cover housing discrimination at all.
Last year, Iraq War vet Joel Morgan sued a landlord in Boston for refusing to rent to him because she was anti-war.
"Because of what you told me about the Iraq war … we are very adamant about our beliefs … it’s just not comfortable for us … and I’m sure now that you know this, it would not be comfortable for you," the landlord allegedly said in a voicemail to Morgan. "I would suggest you do the right thing and look for a place less politically active or controversial."
The House and Senate bills were crafted in consultation with AMVETS, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Guard Association of the United States.
AMVETS sees the bills as key in its American Veterans Anti-Discrimination Initiative.
“The American Veteran Anti-Discrimination Initiative is an important legislative priority for AMVETS and our community,” said AMVETS National Commander Cleve Geer. “The added support of VFW and NGAUS gives us the momentum we need for action on Capitol Hill and to protect our transitioning veterans.”
The veterans organization said it has gathered numerous examples of veterans whose rental applications were denied or who were fired from their job because of military status.
VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace said "the value of military service has eroded to the point that being a veteran is seen as a liability to many employers."
Proponents on the Hill cite a 2012 Center for a New American Security study that found more than 80 percent of the companies surveyed "described two or more challenges to hiring veterans."
More than 50 percent of employers noted a negative stereotype associated with veterans, including concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder and a perceived lack of flexibility.
"Although an emphasis on discipline, structure and process is prized by some employers, other employers perceive veterans as more rigid, less imaginative and less communicative than civilians. These perceptions are the mirror image of many positive comments discussed in the prior section about veterans’ discipline and strict adherence to processes, and they were sometimes exacerbated by veterans who stood or sat with a ramrod posture and responded to questions in a military fashion, emphasizing brevity and directness," the report stated.
"In these instances, the civilian employer would have preferred the candidate to be more open and communicative, whereas the veteran was likely interacting as the military had trained him or her."
Half of companies surveyed named the perceived acclimation period to civilian life as a challenge in extending a job offer to veterans and as a key explanation for veteran unemployment rates.
“If you fight for our country, you shouldn’t have to fight for a job when you come home,” Kilmer said.