While reservists serve, their jobs don't always wait
Between 2004 and 2006, returning volunteers filed 16,000 complaints against employers.
Steve Duarte worked in human resources for the same company for 19 years. But within months of returning from Iraq with his Marine Reserve unit in 2003 – his second military deployment in two years – he was told his job was ending in a week.Skip to next paragraph
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"There was that initial shock – and then the shock of 'What am I going to do?' " recalls Mr. Duarte of Littleton, Colo., whose expenses at the time included tuition for his son at the University of Denver.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, tensions are mounting between the military's civilian volunteers, trying to step back into their professions, and employers, straining at times to cope with a growing cadre of workers who are away at war for months then expect to regain their former jobs. A 1994 law – the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) – gives workers that right, along with promotions or other benefits they would have earned had they not been deployed. But with more than 600,000 reservists and guardsmen mobilized since 9/11, thousands have found their jobs gone or positions diminished when they returned.
Last week the Department of Justice said it was suing Wal-Mart, alleging that it failed to reinstate a cashier who was an Air Force reservist, and United Parcel Service, charging that it eliminated the job of another Air Force reservist while he was on active duty in Iraq in 2003.
USERRA had been a lightly used law until 9/11 "changed our priorities completely," says John Muckelbauer, regional director of compliance for 10 Midwestern states for the Labor Department's Veterans' Employment and Training Service, which investigates complaints. "It pushed USERRA right up to the top and it's been up there ever since."
The law is a ticklish issue for companies, experts say. On one hand, they don't want to do anything that makes them look unpatriotic. On the other, the long and sometimes repeated deployments of key personnel can complicate staffing.
"There continue to be companies that step forward and support guardsmen and reservists," says John Lowrie, an attorney with Ford and Harrison LLP, a labor-law firm that represents employers around the country. "There are other companies that do feel a strain, and it's difficult for them." Particularly under stress are airlines, police and fire departments, and other emergency-response services, whose key employees also tend to be in military reserve units, he adds.
"It can be a challenge for our smaller companies especially," says Jack Morton, manager of national security and emergency preparation at the US Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is working with the military to develop a predictable schedule for call-ups of the National Guard and reserve units.
Some 16,000 complaints filed
No one knows how big the problem is. Members of the reserve forces filed some 16,000 formal and informal complaints with the government from 2004 through 2006, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO), using the most recent data available. But that may underestimate the number who actually encounter rehiring problems, experts say.