Expert says job complaints from service members on the rise

08/28/09 5:50PM By Nina Keck
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(Host)   Vermont officials are still investigating allegations that members of the Vermont National Guard were denied jobs and promotions at the state prison in Springfield because of their military service.

Four members of the National Guard who worked at the prison have filed complaints with the U-S Department of Labor and a fifth has filed a lawsuit. 

VPR's Nina Keck spoke to an expert who says complaints like these are on the rise.

(Keck)   Attorney Samuel Wright is a retired Navy Captain who co-authored the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act - better known as USERRA.   An early version of the law was crafted in 1940 to protect the civilian jobs of soldiers in World War II.   Fifty years later, Wright helped retool and expand the legislation to protect the civilian jobs of those in the National Guard and reserves.   Wright now directs the Military Law Center in Washington D.C.

(Wright) "I get about 30 to 40 to 50 calls and emails per week from national guard or reserve members having problems or issues with their civilian employers about their service in the National Guard and Reserve." 

(Keck)   Ironically, he says, state governments seem to push the law more than private employers.

(Wright) "State governments don't like the idea that there's a federal law that overrides their state law.   They have more resources.   And state governments are more willing to fight it in some cases."

(Keck)   State agencies have an attorney general's office to do legal work and he says unlike private employers, state agencies don't have to pay the costs of a dispute out of pocket.   He says Vermont is by no means the only state being accused of USERRA violations, citing recent cases in North Carolina, Alabama and Nevada.

(Wright) "It is a burden.  Congress recognized that this is a burden on employers, more so than it used to be as we're more dependent than ever upon the National Guard and Reserve.   But the burdens on employers are small compared to the burdens and sacrifices voluntarily undertaken by the men and women in our armed forces." 

(Keck)    It's hard to get an accurate number of how many USERRA disputes are filed nationwide because those who feel victimized can take action several ways.   Some file complaints with the Department of Labor.   Others hire private attorneys.  Still others seek help from the federally funded Employer Services of the Guard and Reserve.   Ted Fessel, at their national office, says ESGR mediators handled over 2,600 cases last year involving both public and private employers.

(Fessel) "Quite often the midline supervisor may or may not know the requirements of the USERRA law.  And once they understand the requirements they're very quick to comply.  And most instances - as per the numbers we have in front of us - about 80 percent of the time the people do the right thing."

(Keck)   Fessel says a big part of their mission includes educating employers and military personnel.   Sam Wright of the Service Members Law Center that's a step in the right direction, because he says many service members are unaware of their rights or are too intimidated to complain and their cases go unreported.   

For VPR News, I'm Nina Keck.

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