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'Business as usual': Congress asks VA to explain chronic late payments to student vets

Congressional members charged with overseeing the interests of former American service members have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs for a briefing to explain why its "work study" program is often months late paying many of its employees: college students who served in the military. 

Kami Fluetsch

Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Ashley Metcalf, now a student at the University of Colorado Denver, says he and other students employed by the VA to help fellow vets transition into college frequently wait months for VA wages to arrive.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs issued that request of VA officials on Wednesday, one day after NBC News reported student veterans hired by the VA to help fellow ex-service members transition into college have routinely waited one to two months — and, in one case, four months — for unpaid wages. Delayed compensation from the VA has caused eviction worries and mounting debt among some of those student veterans. 

A call by NBC News to VA media relations officials Wednesday seeking comment on the Congressional briefing was not returned by Thursday morning. 

Rep. Jeff Miller, R. Fla., chairman of the committee on veterans affairs, said the VA's sluggish payment-pipeline seems to be "just another example" of a federal agency purposely sticking to outmoded practices versus modernizing its approach in order to help veterans. He also called for a wholesale streamlining in the way student veterans who work for the VA on campuses across the nation are reimbursed for their hours logged on the job.

"It is my understanding that VA's policy is to have student veterans accumulate 50 to 100 hours of work before submitting their claim for payment to VA. That payment schedule is counterintuitive to how people pay their living expenses," Miller said. 

"Therefore, GI Bill work study participants should be able to verify their working hours on a calendar basis, similar to the way Montgomery GI Bill students verify their enrollment on a monthly basis, as they have for decades," Miller added. "VA has the technology to set up the system in this way already. So, this problem appears to be just another example of government bureaucracy being satisfied with business as usual instead of evolving to serve veterans more efficiently."

Ashley Metcalf, a student veteran — and a "work study" employee who uncovered the scope of the payment snags via a survey of 18 colleges — said Miller's plan to fix the issue would solve the VA's payment snags. 

"He's absolutely correct," said Metcalf, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I started school under the Montgomery GI bill in 2007 and used that online system to verify my school attendance. This option seems like a solution that simply requires reallocating resources and tweaking the system a bit to fit work study requirements."

Metcalf, a student at the University of Colorado Denver, told NBC News 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 work study program. 

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."

But Metcalf's survey earlier this year 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. 

On Wednesday, a VA spokesperson offered an e-mailed reaction to Metcalf's survey results, in part putting the onus back on colleges where work-study employees have been hired to help fellow vets: "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."

The same e-mail from VA added: "VA regional processing offices for work-study typically process time cards quickly, on average less than a week."

"The word 'typically' would suggest that we are an anomaly. And that’s not by any means the case," Metcalf responded. 

Beyond finding delayed VA payments to student veterans at more than a dozen campuses covered by his survey, Metcalf said student veterans in two additional states — Michigan and Washington — contacted him after NBC News reported the glitches and added  their late-payment complaints to the growing list. 

"If we were an anomaly, it would only be happening to us," Metcalf said. "Before we even sent out the survey, we called different schools and different organizations. We went online to find out if other schools are having the same issue. That’s the reason we started the survey — we were talking to student veterans who were all having the same problems in different states."

He also responded to the VA's claim of "typically" processing time cards in less than a week with one word: "preposterous."

According to Metcalf and many of the students he surveyed at the 18 other colleges, the VA has frequently failed to respond to calls and e-mails from student veterans seeking to learn when their owed wages would be arriving and asking for explanations for the compensation holdups. 

"We’ve been trying to tell them," Metcalf said, "and no one there is listening."

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