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Kennedy Takes Agencies to Task for Not Protecting Vet Jobs

November 8, 2007
Related Topics: Staffing and the Law, Policies and Procedures, Latest News
Tens of thousands of National Guard and Reserve soldiers have had problems reclaiming their civilian jobs over the past six years, according to Defense Department figures released by Sen. Edward Kennedy on Thursday, November 8.

At a hearing of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, released a 2005-06 pentagon survey showing that nearly 11,000 Guard and Reserve members have been denied prompt re-employment, while more than 22,000 lost seniority and 11,000 lost their health insurance. The statistics had not previously been made public.

They indicate an apparent violation of federal law that requires companies to allow Guard members and reservists to return to their jobs after their military service.

Kennedy, who chairs the committee, criticized the four federal agencies that oversee veterans’ employment rights—the Departments of Labor, Defense and Justice and the Office of Special Counsel—for failing to adequately uphold the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

The Defense Department survey indicates that 77 percent of those experiencing problems re-entering the workforce did not seek assistance, while 44 percent of those who filed a USERRA complaint were upset with the way it was handled by the Labor Department.

In addition, 23 percent returning from deployment in 2006 could not find a job because their employers didn’t rehire them. Since 2001, about 630,000 Guard and Reserve members have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Veterans who seek help face … a system that is crumbling and failing to serve them whey the need it most,” Kennedy said Thursday. “They have to negotiate a maze of bureaucracy.”

Kennedy pressed witnesses from the Labor Department and other agencies to improve the system. “This is not the record we should be very satisfied with,” he said. “We have to try to get it straight.”

Charles Ciccolella, assistant secretary of labor for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, said that few companies willfully violate the law. But they do have difficulty grasping what they must do as Guard and Reserve members leave for longer periods of time.

“These lengthy deployments create situations that are much more complex” than in the past, Ciccolella says. “Most USERRA cases are resolved quickly. Most of them are the result of employers not understanding the law.”

Of 15,000 cases presented to the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve last year, only 1 percent were not settled through an informal mediation process, said L. Gordon Sumner, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia, organization.

But one witness at the hearing criticized the group, as well as federal agencies, for failing him when he returned from combat. Steve Duarte, a retired Marine officer, said he was fired by Agilent Technologies in November 2003. He returned from Iraq in July of that year.

He lost his job despite having worked for the company for nearly two decades. Duarte, who is an HR professional, sued the company and won in a case that he estimates cost Agilent $1 million.

A company at the opposite end of the spectrum also was highlighted at the hearing. Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group not only adheres to federal veterans employment law, it exceeds it.

The company has won an award from the Department of Defense for its program, which makes up the difference in salary for people on military leave if their base pay on duty is less than what they would have received while working for the rental car company.

Dollar Thrifty also offers health coverage to Guard and Reserve members while they are away that they would have had if they were still with the company. Finally, it aids return to civilian life with an employee assistance program.

Part of its culture stems from the fact that Dollar Thrifty CEO Gary Paxton is a former Marine. But the company also benefits from the skills that military service instills.

After returning from deployment, reservists at Dollar often become shift supervisors and station managers.

“These folks can lead [their colleagues], motivate them and speak to them on their level,” said Richard Halbrook, Dollar executive vice president. “The military is great at leadership development.”

Sumner’s organization is trying to encourage more companies to be like Dollar. Over the past year, it has sent out 500,000 CDs to companies that explain federal veterans employment law and give examples of situations that may arise.

The effort started with 100,000 CDs but has grown rapidly thanks to viral marketing through other groups like the Small Business Administration.

“It’s promulgated itself,” Sumner said. “It’s been a very, very successful venture.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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