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October 24, 2012

Vets say late paychecks from VA cripple their finances

DENVER — Exasperated veterans who work part-time for the Veterans Administration while attending college say their paychecks are sometimes weeks late, leaving them in trouble with bill collectors or having to borrow money to avoid eviction.

The two-week paycheck is typically about $360, and can be vital to veterans raising families and juggling expenses.

“It’s absolutely crucial,” said Neal Boyd, an Army veteran who has two children, attends Danville Area Community College in Illinois and works for the VA in the school’s career services office to help other veterans.

The VA work-study program lets them work an average of up to 25 hours a week on the VA payroll if they are full-time or three-quarter-time college students.

The program is separate from other GI Bill benefits such as tuition and textbook assistance and a housing allowance that varies by location. But veterans said those benefits don’t cover all their expenses, and they need a job to make ends meet.

The veterans were paid a total of $25.7 million in fiscal year 2011 — the most recent year for which statistics were available. They are paid the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, or their state’s minimum wage, whichever is higher.

The number of veterans in the program depends on the needs of their schools, and veterans qualify based on their financial need and other factors, the VA said. Veterans who want to join the program submit a contract to the VA for approval.

More than 10,000 veterans are in the VA work-study program nationwide, but it’s difficult to pin down how widespread the paycheck delays are.

The VA said on average, the checks are issued less than a week after time cards are received by the VA, but acknowledged they have been delayed at a processing center in St. Louis, one of four nationwide, because of a heavy workload and the loss of three workers.

In a statement, the department said it hired more workers in St. Louis last month and now has six assigned to process work-study paper work. The St. Louis office cut the processing time for paychecks to five days, down from an average as high as 12 days in some months, the statement said.

The St. Louis office handles work-study time cards and contracts from 19 states, mostly in the Midwest.

The VA said it is investigating some individual cases and looking for other changes to speed up the checks. It said it wants to ensure that all veterans get their benefits on time.

Two Colorado veterans who queried VA work-study students in several states say they found that 48 percent said it usually takes two to four weeks to get their checks. Nearly 13 percent said more than a month.

The two veterans, Ashley Metcalf and Morgan Sforzini, said they were having problems getting paid and wondered whether other veterans were.

A total of 88 VA work-study students from 16 states answered their written questions. More than half were in states that submitted their time cards to the St. Louis office.

Six veterans interviewed by The Associated Press reported delays of up to two months in getting a paycheck or getting approval for the contract allowing them to hold a work-study job. They also complained of long waits on hold when calling about the checks and contracts.

Veterans at the University of Colorado, Denver, keep score to see “who cannot get paid the longest,” said Metcalf, an Air Force veteran who has a work-study job. The record is 90 days.

The veterans find various work-arounds when their checks are late, from getting emergency loans to temporarily getting on their college’s payroll.

Loki Jones, an Army Special Forces veteran who served in Iraq, said he had to borrow money to pay his rent last spring because his work-study check was about three months late.

Jones, a student at the University of Colorado, Denver, said his contract was lost and then his time card was held up at least twice, once because he failed to initial parts of it.

“If I hadn’t gotten that emergency loan, if that hadn’t gone through, I would have gotten kicked out of my apartment for sure,” he said.

Air Force veteran Jon Bohlander, who attends Johnson County Community College in Kansas, said he submitted a contract in late May or early June for a job during the college’s summer session. The approved contract came back on July 27, a day before the session ended.

“Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be working,” he said, but he put in his hours in the school’s veterans office anyway. He was paid two weeks after his contract was approved.

Bohlander, a single parent of three, has asked Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., for help getting the VA to pay. After Yoder’s office made inquiries, the turnaround improved for two or three weeks, but then it “just falls back into the routine again,” he said.

Cheyne Worley, who works in Yoder’s Overland Park, Kan., office, said seven or eight veterans in the program have told him about pay delays in the past year. The VA should be better prepared to deal with the wave of 1.4 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, he said.

“It shouldn’t fall on the backs of the student veterans. They’ve done their duty,” he said.

The work-study jobs usually involve helping other veterans sign up for benefits or processing paperwork at colleges or VA offices. Others work at VA hospitals or cemeteries.

The veterans say they hang on to the jobs despite the problems because their days and hours are flexible and they prize the loyalty and friendship of their co-workers and bosses. They also feel an obligation to help other veterans navigate through college life, a radically different world from the military.

“It’s my duty to do that,” Metcalf said. “And I take that on, even though I’m not getting paid in a timely manner.”

———

Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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