Veterans have long received mixed welcome upon their return home from service. Many of us remember the Vietnam era veterans’ difficulty in reassimilating, facing as they did receptions ranging from indifference to outright hostility. These days we give more lip service to honoring the sacrifices of this country’s service members. But whether we truly support our troops is open to question when such a large portion of our homeless population consists of veterans, and the medical benefits available for their specific needs is often denied.
One way we can, and must, support veterans is in the workplace. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) forbids employers from discriminating against individuals because of their service (or application to serve) in the uniformed armed services. Briefly, the law requires employers to rehire a returning service member into the same job they held, or a job up the ladder that he or she would have held if not for the break in service required by the military. If the service member needs additional training to meet the requirements of the old or the escalated job, the employer has to provide it. In addition, an employer may not refuse to hire or promote someone because of his membership in, for example, the National Guard. The reemployment requirements apply to any service member whose cumulative absences are less than five years, with exceptions.
In addition, returning service members with disabilities must be accommodated, if a reasonable accommodation is available.
The law asks service members to give reasonable notice of their being called to duty, and requires them to return promptly to work if they were gone for no more than 30 days. If they are gone longer, or return disabled, they have more time to notify the employer and claim their old job. If the absence is up to six months, they have two weeks to return; if more than six months, they have 90 days to notify the employer that they are ready to return to their old job.
This law can pose hardships on the employer. First of all, it applies to all employers, regardless of size. So a company of three can be in the position of losing an employee for short or long-term duty, and if the military does not give much warning of deployment, then the employer does not get that warning either. Upon return, the service member is entitled to the old job back; the replacement may need to be fired. Second, with the long-running wars in the middle east, return deployments are common. Sometimes there is very little notice that a person is being called up. Congress has decided that the burden of the uncertainty is going to be shared by the service member and his family, and the employer who will have to deal with the occasional tours of duty.
Employers have to post USERRA rights notices. As with other discrimination statutes, retaliation for exercising rights or standing up for other employees’ rights is actionable.