WASHINGTON – Increasing numbers of National Guard (search) and Reserve (search) troops who have returned from war in Iraq and Afghanistan are encountering new battles with their civilian employers at home. Jobs were eliminated, benefits reduced and promotions forgotten.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Labor Department reports receiving greater numbers of complaints under a 1994 law designed to give Guard and Reserve troops their old jobs back, or provide them with equivalent positions. Benefits and raises must be protected, as if the serviceman or servicewoman had never left.
Some soldiers, however, are finding the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights (search) Act can't protect them.
—Larry Gill couldn't return as a police officer in Thomasville, Ala., because a grenade injured a foot, making it impossible for him to chase criminals or duck bullets.
—Jerry Chambers, of Oberlin, Kan., discovered budget cuts had eliminated his job as a substance abuse prevention consultant.
—Ron Vander Wal, of Pollock, S.D., was originally told his job as a customer service representative was eliminated. He was hired after filing a civil lawsuit seeking damages.
The Labor Department said complaint numbers would have been worse had the government not made an aggressive effort to explain the law to employers.
"Any increase in the number of complaints is a concern to us," said Fred Juarbe Jr., assistant secretary of labor for veterans employment and training. "At the same time, we're pleased by the fact that the increase in complaints is not at the level that would have been expected."
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (search) said the department is drafting rules to spell out the law's protections for service personnel. "We've got to do everything we can to protect their re-employment rights," she said.
The department was receiving about 900 formal complaints a year before Sept. 11, 2001. The statistical picture since then, based on fiscal years ending Sept. 30:
—1,218 cases opened in 2002.
—1,327 cases in 2003.
—1,200 cases from Oct. 1, 2003 through July 31. If projected over 12 months, the figure would be 1,440, the department said.
The department upheld or settled soldiers' complaints in one-third of last year's cases, while another third were found to have no merit. The remaining cases are inactive or closed, often because the government lost contact with the soldier or the soldier returned to active duty.
When Guard and Reserve troops returned from the first Gulf War, there was one complaint for every 54 soldiers leaving active duty. Currently, with the government's aggressive drive to inform employers of the law, the figure has improved to 1 in 69.
The complaints represent a small percentage of the quarter-million Guard and Reserve troops who have left active duty since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Not all returning troops are bitter about their job loss.
Chambers, the substance abuse consultant, agreed budget cuts left his former nonprofit employer no choice but to eliminate his job.
"I don't fault them for that and I don't hold grudges," said Chambers. He was among the lucky ones, finding employment with his Reserve unit, the 1013th Quartermaster Co. based in North Platte and McCook, Neb. His unit has been mobilized anew, and he is again on active duty.
For others, finding their jobs gone was a hardship, emotionally and economically.
Gill, the former Alabama police officer with an injured leg, had to give up a career that began in 1992 and followed in the footsteps of his father and brother.
"My biggest concern is loss of income," he said.
While some troops fault former employers for firing them as they served their country, most complaints involved alleged denial of benefits, promotions and raises, said officials from the Labor Department and a Pentagon organization — Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
Army Col. Brarry Cox, who coordinates the ESGR's mediation efforts between employers and returning troops, said typical issues raised by soldiers include: "What about the 401 (k)? The end-of-year bonus? What about my evaluation? I was due a merit promotion that I missed.
"We try to talk employers through a logical approach: How were they (the employees) performing prior to active duty, where do you think they would have come out?"
The Labor Department, which has subpoena power, asks employers to justify firings or reduction of benefits and can refer complaints to the Justice Department for filing of civil lawsuits. Only a small percentage of cases get that far.
While the 1994 law strengthened previous protections, it doesn't help doctors, lawyers or small business owners who depend on maintaining a client base. It doesn't save jobs eliminated by plant closings or budget cuts. And it doesn't help injured troops who can no longer perform the work they once did.
Reservists and guardsmen who returned to the Prince George's County government outside Washington, D.C., were among those who fell into a gray area.
The county required that they exhaust their leave before receiving a county salary supplement that bridged the gap between military and civilian pay. This meant some employees had to count some of their time in a war zone as vacation days or forfeit the extra pay.
"Our members were not able to decompress," said Percy Alston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge representing the county's police officers. His members have challenged the policy through labor grievance procedures and expect an arbitrator will decide the matter.