Potomac News Online | Guardsmen lose jobs after return
WASHINGTON — National Guardsmen Charles Goodreau, Benito Colon and Michael McLaughlin are fighting not Iraqi insurgents but their employers.
They join the growing ranks of part-time warriors who lost jobs or say they were discriminated against when they returned from military service.
During the past three years, more than 4,400 service members have filed complaints with the Labor Department charging employers have fired, demoted or discriminated against them — possible violations of the 11-year-old Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
Rights of guardsmen and reservists
SLIDESHOW: In Iraq
Such complaints have risen 62 percent since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as the Pentagon mobilized 483,000 part-time troops — some more than once — to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan or guard the homeland. It has been the largest call up since World War II.
Thousands more in the reserves and National Guard have sought help from volunteer ombudsmen for the Defense Department’s Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve to retain jobs, get delayed promotions or receive pay raises.
Since September, Justice Department civil rights attorneys have joined the battle, suing on behalf of reservists. Goodreau, Colon and McLaughlin are the first three represented by the Justice attorneys.
“The last thing I want is a soldier or sailor worrying about his or her job,” said Brad Schlozman, the deputy assistant attorney general who oversees civil rights cases.
Pentagon and Labor Department officials maintain that their public relations programs have educated employers so well that only 1 in 67 who were mobilized have filed a complaint, and about 95 percent of complaints are resolved without an employee going to court.
Representatives of business and human resource management groups say their members are patriotic and support the law. But some who help service members in employment binds privately say employers are becoming more hesitant to hire reservists and try to find loopholes in the law.
An ombudsman who asked for anonymity said, “It’s hard to prove that a company didn’t hire you because you were in the Guard. And, who would want to go to work for a company that you had to threaten to sue to get a job?”
While federal officials see no trends in the complaints, Schlozman said long and recurring military deployments are likely to increase employment complaints.
Justice has received 69 referrals from the Labor Department for further investigation and possible lawsuits in the last six months, officials said. Within 90 days, Justice officials are supposed to decide whether a case has merit. Previously, cases could have languished for years.
“We’ve tried to ratchet this up,” Schlozman said.
Beginning last month, all employers must inform workers about the reemployment law and its guarantees and place a poster in the workplace outlining employee rights.
“Once they understand the law, the overwhelming majority of employers do the right thing,” said John Muckelbauer, chief of staff for the Veterans Employment and Training Service.
The first line of defense for service members is hundreds of volunteer ombudsmen with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. The ombudsmen interview the affected service members and talk to employers. Often, once they remind company officials about the reemployment law, the worker is reinstated.
If persuasion fails, a worker can file a complaint with the Labor Department.
About one-third of complaints are tossed out because they lack merit, said department spokesman Mike Biddle. Another third are abandoned because the worker goes back on active duty or fails to follow through. The remainder are resolved through settlements with employers or are referred to the Justice Department.
During the past three years, the Labor Department has collected $3.2 million in back wages and benefits for service members.
An affected worker can hire a private attorney or let the government sue on his behalf. Goodreau, Colon and McLaughlin chose the later.
A rubber mixing machine operator at a Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant in Clarksville, Tenn., Goodreau was a staff sergeant in the Tennessee National Guard when his military police company deployed to Iraq in 2003.
When he returned last year, the company put him back to work at his old wage, $17.44 an hour. Goodreau argued that he should be paid $18.60 an hour, the amount he would have received had he not been mobilized.
On March 29, Justice officials brokered a settlement between Goodreau and Bridgestone/Firestone. Without admitting fault, the tire maker paid back wages of more than $6,000 and agreed to comply with the reemployment law. Goodreau could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuits involving Colon, a pharmaceutical sales representative in Puerto Rico, and McLaughlin, a plant manager for a Pennsylvania box maker, are pending in federal courts. Efforts to contact them were unsuccessful.
While Justice has filed only three lawsuits, additional lawsuits are likely.
“We get the very tip of the spear — the ones that can’t be resolved any other way,” said David Palmer, chief of Justice’s employment litigation section.
James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service.