First Lt. Christopher Matthai, 31, enlisted in the Army at 18 after graduating from high school in Baltimore, and in 2006 he joined the Army Reserve. In May 2009, shortly before he married, Matthai was hired for a two-year internship by the Social Security Administration as an information technology specialist.
Soon after he started, however, the Army Reserve selected Matthai for a commission. After missing much of his first year at work for officer training, Matthai informed his civilian supervisors in April 2010 that he would be sent to Afghanistan in the fall for a year. A few days later, he was fired for “poor performance” and for being absent without leave.
“I was shocked,” Matthai recalled. “I told them, ‘At least let me resign so I can walk out of here with a clear name.’ ”
Instead, he was escorted out by a guard.
Matthai filed a complaint with the Labor Department. An investigation stretched on for months, and Matthai deployed to Afghanistan with the situation unresolved and his wife, Lindsay, pregnant with their first child. Stress from the case “was destroying my marriage,” he said. “I’m sitting overseas, banging my head against the wall.”
The Labor Department’s investigation, completed in March 2011, found that Matthai had been “wrongfully terminated” because of his military obligations and falsely accused of being absent without leave. There was no evidence of poor performance.
No enforcement power
Matthai was entitled to get his job back with lost wages and benefits and have his record cleared of any wrongdoing, according to the Labor Department. Matthai, then midway through his tour in Afghanistan, only wanted the SSA to clear his record and pay his attorney fees.
But the Labor Department’s findings carry no enforcement power. The SSA offered to pay only a small portion of his attorney fees and insisted that Matthai not seek reemployment with the SSA — a stipulation that would have been a red flag for any other federal agency considering hiring him, according to Estes, his attorney.
“The whole complaint process is totally broken,” Matthai said. “I’m a federal employee and a reservist, and I felt completely unprotected and abandoned by the federal government.”
It was only after Matthai returned from Afghanistan, when his attorney began scheduling depositions to bring the case before the Merit Systems Protection Board and his congressman, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), called the agency, that the SSA settled the case in November.
The agency dropped its demand that Matthai not seek employment with it again, paid him his full $13,500 in attorney fees and cleared his record, but it made no admission that it had violated USERRA. The agency declined to comment.
“I still feel cheated,” Matthai said. “The law needs some muscle behind it to have it mean something.”
In January, Matthai left Maryland for a one-year assignment with the Army in Texas. His wife and their now 1-year-old son, Christopher Jr., will soon follow.
“I’ve got to find some kind of employment,” he said, “and it seems the only option is the military.”