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Vets’ Jobs: Priority for Many
Vol. 53   No. 12
Employers fulfill the promise—and intent—of the law that guarantees jobs for vets.

Eric Reed  12/1/2008
 

Veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq boast an unemployment rate of only 2.6 percent—fair evidence that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) seems to be working, says Charles S. Ciccolella, assistant secretary of veterans employment and training at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The figure compares to a national unemployment rate, at press time, of 6.5 percent for all civilian workers.

And the news remains good for members of the military on the verge of being discharged: Employers offer many opportunities, Ciccolella says. The relatively small number of unemployed service members usually do not want to return to jobs they had before entering the military and look for new jobs where they can use the skills they learned in the military, he explains.

Ciccolella’s analysis documents the experience of more than 200,000 service members leaving and seeking to return to the civilian workforce each year, including members of the National Guard and the Reserves. Hence, he says, USERRA has proved helpful for employers—and the returning members of the military that the law protects.

The law allows employers some leeway when rehiring former employees returning from activeduty in the military. But merely understanding the nuances of USERRA remains a daunting task, and applying the law can be even harder.

The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) and other organizations—links to which are listed in the online version of this article—help explain the law. Advocates point out, for example, that USERRA guarantees that people called up for duty who must leave civilian jobs will be re-employed in the jobs they would have attained with reasonable certainty if not for the military leave. As the ESGR explains, USERRA’s escalator principle “requires that the employee be re-employed in a position that reflects with reasonable certainty the pay, benefits, seniority and other job perquisites that he or she would have attained if not for the period of service.” However:

  • A returning veteran may not have a job if the company no longer exists.
  • If a job has been phased out, the employer must provide a job equal to the previous one.
  • The law covers deployments only up to five years.
  • Those leaving uniformed service with dishonorable discharges lose their rights to jobs protected under USERRA.

Returning veterans also must comply with notification restrictions. They must submit timely applications for re-employment when they return from military service. Those who don’t can lose their rights to regain their jobs protected under USERRA, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as missions that involved national security or were classified.

How To Help Returning Veterans

By Nancy M. Davis

Complying with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 represents only part of the activities that Boeing Co. human resource personnel take on to serve—in their own ways—the U.S. military.

Richard B. Hartnett, Boeing’s director of global staffing, says the giant defense contractor and aerospace manufacturer so values military training that defense facilities serve as important recruiting venues, and finding jobs for people returning from active duty has high priority throughout the Chicago-based company. His suggestions for administering
such a program:

  • Put active-duty military personnel on leaves of absence.
  • Strive to provide a pay differential, continue medical benefits and continue accruing individuals’ time in company service.
  • Create an easy internal process for requesting military leave.
  • Ask for expected dates of departure and length of service.
  • Bring veterans back to “like” jobs. Do not guarantee the same desk in the same chair, but work to provide jobs in the same units or the same locations.
  • Keep track of workers on active duty
    through the payroll system.
  • Maintain access to a variety of resources to fill the slots vacated by National Guard or Reserve members called to active duty, or find other ways to ensure that the work gets done.

Hartnett says normal attrition and turnover usually generate enough jobs to accommodate people returning from active duty. At Boeing, as at other companies, he continues, line managers decide how work gets done after a person leaves for active duty. Many call in members of Boeing’s “contingent” or temporary workforce, while others hire a contractor.

— The author is editor of HR Magazine. 

Success Stories

USERRA is important for all members of the military, particularly members of the National Guard and Reserves called up for active duty. Such assignments generally last two years but can last up to five.

The challenge for employers: filling gaps in the workforce left by departing employees and keeping jobs open for them upon their return. “We either spread the work out to the team or we hire a contract employee,” says Mark Williamson, college and military recruiting manager at Perot Systems Corp., a worldwide provider of information technology services based in Plano, Texas. He voices pride in the company’s military family: Employees maintain a display that showcases a picture and small biography of each fellow worker on active duty.

Replacing employees called up for duty increases costs, although Perot Systems does not have an estimate of the amount. Yet Williamson considers the expense a normal requirement of doing business. He says three factors help Perot Systems meet the intent and spirit of USERRA:

  • A program called the Healthcare Academy to support returning veterans companywide. Recruiters for the program look to hire Navy corpsmen and Army medical officers in addition to Perot Systems’ returning workers.
  • Support for returning veterans from company leaders and human resource managers.
  • Support from many other employees.

Perot Systems’ recruiters rely on word-of-mouth and the federal Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to hire qualified returning veterans for the Academy and other slots. TAP is sponsored by the DOL, other government agencies and employers, and it enables returning veterans to participate in a variety of counselling opportunities and job fairs.

“The Healthcare Academy program puts them into three months of formal training and turns them into health care technicians who are also clinicians,” says Williamson. He adds that the program attracts people because they can put the skills they learned in the military to use in the civilian world.

This becomes apparent when looking at one of Perot Systems’ new hires, Jason Spruill, a business analyst. A naval medical corpsman who served in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he signed on to join Perot Systems six months before he was discharged from the Navy, and trained in the Healthcare Academy.

For returning veterans and members of the Guard and the Reserves called to active duty, the law serves as a security blanket: They know they will have a job after serving their country, says Ted Daywalt, president and chief executive officer of VETJobs, an Internet job board.

Many employers hire veterans and Guard and Reserve members. See the Web Extras box above for a link to a 2008 list, released Nov. 11, of 50 companies lauded for their military friendliness. The list typically includes employers in diverse fields ranging from transportation and manufacturing to insurance and retail. In addition, DOL officials and other veterans’ advocates cite Cisco Systems Inc., CSX, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and many other companies for their commitment to hiring and holding jobs for veterans and Guard and Reserve members.

Wal-Mart currently has more than 3,000 associates on military leave out of a total of 1.4 million associates worldwide, says Sharon Weber, a Wal-Mart spokesperson. The Bentonville, Ark., retailer numbers among employers offering workers on active duty supplemental pay and continuation of benefits, including health benefits.

About 800 associates returned to Home Depot from military service in 2007. Gretchen Lumsden, director of retail staffing, credits the Atlanta-based hardware retailer’s specific USERRA compliance policies—and a significant amount of training for and communication among associates—with easing veterans’ return.

Discrimination Upfront?

Even though HR professionals at companies such as Perot Systems have no problem accommodating employees with military affiliations, Guard and Reserve members still face discrimination upfront in getting hired, Daywalt says.

Call-ups of Guard and Reserve members have been issued 20 times since 1991, Daywalt points out. Because of this, some employers will not hire Guard and Reserve members—whether they’re undeployed or returning from active duty, he says.

Some employers, Daywalt says, don’t set out to break the law, but they don’t see any other option than finding an excuse to not hire a Guard or Reserve member. They want to be able to keep their employees working and not have to spread work around to a possibly already overburdened staff, he says.

Daywalt blames some discrimination on the fact that U.S. Defense Department officials keep changing the amount of time a Guard or Reserve member can be deployed. Originally, Guard members were not to be mobilized for combat duty for longer than one year, but the time limit increased to 18 months after Sept.11,2001, and now stands at two years.

Yet the reasons to hire a veteran are many—and returning service members make fine employees, Daywalt and Ciccolella say.

Don’t Ignore the Law

Simply dismissing USERRA requirements can cost employers money because the law allows returning members of the military to bring complaints against employers, resulting in roughly 1,400 investigations a year spearheaded by the U.S. Justice Department. “Most cases are solved very quickly,” Ciccolella says. Based on the relatively low number of cases, however, Ciccolella maintains that employers do a good job holding jobs open for returning soldiers or hiring veterans into new jobs.


The author is a senior majoring in journalism at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and served as an intern for HR Magazine last summer.

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