The Bush administration proposed new regulations Monday aimed at clarifying employment protections for veterans and reservists returning from active duty.

The Labor Department initiative was announced as Democrat John Kerry stepped up his criticism of President Bush on Iraq. Bush is scheduled to speak to the United Nations on Tuesday.

"This is a major step in ensuring that the brave men and women who are risking their lives to preserve freedom and democracy have their jobs and benefits protected when they return home," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said of the proposal.

The department also is joining with Home Depot (search) on Tuesday to announce a jobs program aimed at veterans. It is one of several similar jobs programs that have featured the retailer. Home Depot's chief executive, Robert Nardelli, is a "Super Ranger" for Bush's re-election campaign, raising at least $300,000 for the Republican National Committee in the 2004 election cycle, according to consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

The 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (search), says veterans and reservists returning from active duty generally must be rehired in the job they would have attained, with the same seniority, status, benefits and pay, had they not left.

There are exceptions. For example, if an employer lays off workers and eliminates a soldier's job, the company does not have to provide a job when the soldier returns. Generally, soldiers retain their employment rights for up to five years of military service.

The regulations, which department officials said have been in the works for about three years, were intended to clarify the obligations of employers and the rights of returning service members under the law.

For example, the law requires that a returning service member be "promptly re-employed." The new regulations say employers generally must rehire a returning soldier within two weeks of application for re-employment.

There are exceptions. If several years have passed, an employer may need more time to reassign current employees.

The public has 60 days to comment on the regulations and to propose changes.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on the Education and the Workforce, has been pushing for simple rules that clarify the law. He praised the new regulations. "These men and women are our nation's heroes and we need to do everything we possibly can to protect them against discrimination and job loss as they return to the workplace," he said.

The Labor Department said it has received 3,850 formal complaints from returning soldiers from Oct. 1, 2001, through Sept. 14 of this year. Before troops were mobilized to Afghanistan (search) and Iraq, the department averaged about 900 formal complaints a year.

Soldiers' complaints were upheld or settled by the department in about a third of 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.

Of 424,765 military personnel mobilized after Sept. 11, 2001, about 262,152 have returned home, the department said. But guard and reserve troops are serving extended tours of duty, and thousands of former soldiers are starting to be recalled.

The Labor Department investigates complaints it receives, and those with merit that aren't resolved are referred to the Justice Department and the Office of Special Counsel (search), which handles complaints from government employees. The Labor Department process takes an average of 55 days.