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'I can't afford to live like this': VA weeks, months late paying student veterans

Courtesy of Ashley Metcalf

Ashley Metcalf, who served in Iraq then enrolled in college, is leading a push to compel the VA to pay back wages owed to dozens of student veterans like himself.

Student veterans hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help fellow ex-service members transition into college have routinely waited four to six weeks — and, in one case, four months — for unpaid wages, prompting eviction worries and mounting debt, according to a survey of program members obtained by NBC News.

Ashley Metcalf, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the student veteran who organized the survey of other VA "work-study" employees at 18 campuses — said he’s been living on credit cards since June and was forced to obtain an emergency loan because the VA has failed to compensate him for about 100 hours he's logged in the VA program. 

“How can this happen? If I was working for McDonald’s and they said they’re not going to pay me for 10 weeks, I’d have a lawsuit,” said Metcalf, an Air Force veteran now enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver.

“We’re not asking for a raise or for extra benefits. We’re just asking the VA to do what it said it would do: pay us on time,” Metcalf said. “Coming back home, trying to figure out mentally how to transition into college life and then not getting paid? It’s way too much of a stress for people who are possibly already on edge.”

According to the VA website, the “work-study allowance” is available through the post-9/11 GI Bill. Student veterans employed by the program earn the minimum wage from the VA for devoting hours to specified, on-campus jobs such as “providing assistance to veteran students with general inquiries about veteran benefits,” the site says, adding: "VA will pay you each time you complete 50 hours of service."

A voicemail left Monday by NBC News with the VA media relations office prompted an emailed response Wednesday from a VA spokesperson: "VA will review any issues with the work-study to ensure payments are delivered in a timely manner. To allow more timely payments to work-study students, our regional processing offices recommend that employers submit time records to the work-study coordinator once 50 work hours have been accrued. In some cases, time records are submitted after a student has accrued 100 or more hours."

But Metcalf’s survey found VA work-study employees at five campuses who reported waiting one month to two months for payments — and a student in North Dakota who was not compensated for four months. (Among the 18 schools represented in the survey were Texas A&M, Florida State and the University of Kentucky). Survey participants also revealed that a number of student veterans have quit their work-study jobs due to the chronic payment delays, hamstringing veteran-services departments at some campuses. 

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“I usually have 100 hours logged before I get paid for 50. For any other job I would find this to be a reason to quit,” one student veteran replied to the survey. “It is mind boggling to think that I work 50 hours, submit my form and have to wait almost a month to get paid for it. I'm married with a kid on the way. Please just pay me already!!!” wrote another.

A second dominant survey theme: rising anger over the VA's lack communications — and its failure to provide basic answers as to why faxed time sheets take weeks or months to process and pay. Many survey respondents described numerous unreturned voice mails and unanswered e-mails from VA officials.  "God answers my prayers faster than the VA answers my phone calls," complained one student veteran. 

Tomorrow, Neal Boyd would have marked his one-year anniversary with the VA work-study program. Instead, he resigned the post one month ago. An Iraq War veteran, Boyd was named to the Danville Area Community College Board of Trustees in April as the panel's student representative. (The school, in Danville, Ill, has about 120 students enrolled via military benefits). On Aug. 1, Boyd applied with the VA to renew his work-study contract for the fall semester. He then invested about 70 hours in his assigned job — helping veterans find employment. 

Two months later, Boyd has not received a reply from the VA about his contract renewal — or any money. In September, his college learned of the problem and hired Boyd, adding him to the school's payroll and allowing him to retain his job while letting him simultaneously step away from the VA's work-study program. 

"I’d be in the same boat (as the other unpaid student veterans) if I didn’t have such a great school," Boyd said. "When I would call the VA (for an answer), I wouldn’t get anybody, just a recording saying they were busy processing time sheets. At this point, I'm no longer interested in the VA work-study contract."

While the GI Bill covers veterans' tuition fees, many other living expenses remain. That's where the work-study money is supposed to help students like Ashley Metcalf stay financially safe while attending a full load of college classes and devoting 20 hours a week to guiding other enrolled veterans from the battlefield to the classroom. 

"People are relying on this money. This is ridiculous," Metcalf said of the results gathered by his survey. "I knew that somebody had to step up and do something."

For a personal view of the financial strain caused by the payment delays, Metcalf opened his personal books. In addition to his full tuition coverage, he receives $1,464 in monthly GI benefits. From that check, he pays $600 for rent. The remaining $864 must cover a month's worth of groceries, household items, clothing, school supplies, bills, gas for his car, and parking fees in downtown Denver where his college is located. While the GI Bill also allots $500 for college books, that doesn't cover the true cost each semester — just one of Metcalf's fall classes required $300 in book purchases. 

Courtesy of Ashley Metcalf

Ashley Metcalf served in the Air Force for 12 years, spending time in Iraq. He's being forced to return to service in January because the VA has been months late in compensating him for college work the agency hired Metcalf to perform.

"I’m running short every month (due to unpaid wages; he's supposed to receive $600 every 30 days). I know the VA has numerous veterans issues that are being handled now — mental health and people being homeless. But I have to pay rent. We had another guy (in the work-study program) who almost got evicted," Metcalf said. 

At the University of Colorado Denver, about 900 student veterans are enrolled — 13 of those are employed by VA's work-study program, aiding fellow veterans in tracking their GI benefits and merging into college life, Metcalf said. Amid the VA compensation snags, the bursar's office at UCD created emergency loans — $1,500 per semester — for student veterans, he added. 

"I had to take one of those loans because I don't know when I'm going to get paid," said Metcalf, who also serves as president of the UCD student veteran organization. "I just can't wait any longer for the money." 

And with the draw down in Afghanistan causing more service members to leave the military and enroll directly in college — in part due to the weak job market — Metcalf expects the work-study payment holdups to worsen. That means, he predicts, additional students will quit their work-study posts in college veteran-services departments, which will, in turn, reduce on-campus help for former troops who are trying to carve out success in college.

Metcalf, who spent six years on active duty in the Air Force and another six as reservist, also has reached a career crossroads. 

"I'm going back into the (Air Force) Reserves in January," he said. "I can’t afford to not work. And even though it’s a requirement that I be a full-time student to stay on the GI Bill, I can’t afford to live like this." 

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