WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as it faces budget cuts and forced employee furloughs, the Pentagon is spending nearly a $1 billion a year on a program that sends unemployment checks to former troops who left the military voluntarily.
Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Servicemembers, a Labor Department program, is a spinoff of the federal-state unemployment insurance program.
The Labor Department says the overall program is meant to help “eligible workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own” such as during layoffs.
But eligibility for the military compensation requires only that a person served in uniform and was honorably discharged. In other words, anyone who joins the military and serves for several years, then decides not to re-enlist, is potentially eligible for what could amount to more than 90 weeks of unemployment checks.
The program’s cost rose from $300 million in 2003 to $928 million last year.
Defense officials and outside experts have become increasingly concerned about the rising cost of the compensation program. And some believe it’s evidence of weaknesses in other programs, such as those designed to help veterans find jobs.
Some military experts suspect the availability of the money may be discouraging some veterans from actively looking for work and thus falsely inflating data on their unemployment — data that shows higher joblessness for Iraq and Afghanistan vets than for older ones and for society in general.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said a factor in the higher costs is the increased use of National Guard and Reserve units over the past decade for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is, once they were activated, came home and were deactivated, they were added to the rolls of ex-active duty troops.
Another factor could be the recession, which resulted in higher overall national unemployment rates, Christensen said.
The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is 9.4 percent, compared with 7.7 percent among all Americans.
The compensation “could be funding the acclimation period for veterans; some veterans may be declining employment opportunities or choosing not to seek employment,” said a study last year by analysts at the Center for a New American Security.
The study said the Defense Department should work to better understand the complex needs of veterans during transition to civilian society and figure out how “efficient, helpful and necessary” the unemployment compensation is.