A new bipartisan congressional plan would create a rapid retraining program for veterans who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, giving them potentially 12 months of courses in a “high demand” career field.

The proposal, introduced on Thursday, would mirror current post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, with both tuition funding and a housing stipend on par with full-time students. The program would only be open to 35,000 veterans. Those using other veteran education benefits would not be eligible.

The announcement comes a day before the Bureau of Labor Statistics is scheduled to release its national unemployment estimates for May, figures that are expected to show another uptick in the number of jobless veterans across the country.

In April, about one million veterans filed for unemployment benefits, pushing the jobless rate to nearly 12 percent. In March, that number was 3.5 percent.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for April was 14.7 percent, due mainly to layoffs and company closures forced by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Unfortunately, veterans — particularly young veteran women — have not been spared from the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 virus and by our national response to it,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and co-author of the new retraining bill.

“(This bill will) rapidly retrain those veterans so that they have the knowledge and skillset they need to successfully transition from military to civilian life, quickly reenter the workforce, and thrive in the post-pandemic economy.”

The measure is also sponsored by Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. and chair of the committee’s economic opportunity panel, as well as the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee: Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont. VA officials would have three months after passage of the measure to launch the program.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a setback in veterans’ employment," Moran said. "The Veterans Economic Recovery Act of 2020 will provide retraining opportunities to help our veterans and their spouses find meaningful jobs so they can provide for themselves and their families. These men and women, who have raised their right hand to serve, deserve no less during this crisis that we are facing.”

To be eligible for the new retraining program, veterans must be between the ages of 25 and 60, be unemployed, have an honorable or other than dishonorable discharge, and not be enrolled in other VA education benefits or federal job training program.

Veterans also must not be receiving disability compensation “for reasons that have led to unemployability” and cannot be in receipt of any unemployment benefit when they begin the training.

Members of the National Guard or reserve who were called up on federal orders to assist states with the coronavirus response would also be eligible for the new program, provided they meet the other eligibility requirements.

VA officials would have 60 days after passage of the bill to determine what courses for “high demand” occupations would be covered.

The measure would also expand funding for the existing Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses (VET-TEC) program from $15 million to $45 million, and re-authorize Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses for three additional years.

No timeline has been proposed for when the legislation could be brought up by the appropriate committees in either congressional chamber, or reach the chamber floors for votes.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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