It is against federal law for employers to penalize service members because of their military service. And yet, in some cases, the U.S. government has withdrawn job offers to service members unable to get released from active duty fast enough; in others, service members have been fired after absences.
In fiscal 2011, more than 18 percent of the 1,548 complaints of violations of that law involved federal agencies, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“On the one hand, the government asked me to serve in Iraq,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Michael Silva, a reservist who commanded a brigade in Iraq and was fired from his job as a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol contractor on his return. “On the other hand, another branch of government was not willing to protect my rights after serving.”
The federal government is the largest employer of citizen-soldiers. About 123,000 of the 855,000 men and women currently serving as Guard members and reservists, or about 14 percent, have civilian jobs with the federal government. Over a fourth of federal employees are veterans.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), enacted in 1994 to ensure that members of the military do not face a disadvantage in their civilian careers because of their service, calls on the federal government be “a model employer” for service members.
But critics contend that the federal government has been far from perfect, and they fear that with troops back home from Iraq and more on the way from Afghanistan, violations of the law could increase.
The problems persist even though the Obama administration has made a priority of cutting the rate of veterans’ unemployment, which is significantly higher among post-9/11 veterans than in the population as a whole.
Advocates for veterans say the system set up for service members to challenge alleged USERRA violations is onerous, with no single agency having oversight. And they note that the federal government doesn’t have much incentive to improve. The federal government can be ordered to pay back wages for being in willful violation of the law, but it incurs no other penalties. A private company, by contrast, could be liable for double an employee’s lost wages.
“There seems to be a feeling that the federal government can get away with what they’re doing,” said Matthew Estes, a USERRA lawyer with the law firm Tully Rinckey.
Some federal employers have forced reservists to leave military service as a condition of their hiring, which is also against the law, according to Samuel Wright, director of the Service Members Law Center at the Reserve Officers Association.
“Federal agencies are routinely doing that,” Wright said.