WASHINGTON -- Several government agencies are working together to aggressively defend the reemployment rights of reserve-component service members.
Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, reserve and National Guard troops cannot lose their jobs or their benefits due to military service.
In other words, reservists and Guardsmen who are deployed are guaranteed their previous civilian jobs or similar jobs with the same level of benefits when they return. Employers who fail to comply are in violation of federal law and can be sued by the U.S. government.
U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch is charged with prosecuting federal agencies that fail to comply with the tenets of USERRA. Bloch today visited the Pentagon to pledge his vigilance in these duties. He signed a statement of support for the Guard and reserves on behalf of federal employers.
Leaders of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs spoke at the ceremony.
Assistant Defense Secretary for Reserve Affairs Thomas Hall compared the overwhelming support for today's troops with his own days as a sailor during the Vietnam era. Hall said that in 21 months in his current position, he has had the opportunity to speak to at least 120,000 people around the country and abroad.
"Everywhere I go, I find a different spirit than perhaps existed in my younger years in the Navy. ... Controversy rocked the country, and many of our young men and women who came back from Vietnam ... weren't welcomed," Hall said.
"But what is not lacking today," he continued, "is support from the rank and file, from the businesses and from the community."
ESGR's national director, Bob G. Hollingsworth, told those gathered, "America's employers have rallied around (the troops) in an incredible way." The employers realize "they are inextricably linked to the national defense of our nation," he said.
Hall explained in an interview that employers of reserve-component troops are vital to the future of the National Guard and reserves, and thus America's interests. "It's very key to young men and women having the confidence and their families having the confidence that when they go off to answer the call to colors, when they return they will have a job waiting for them," he said.
Bloch is especially committed to serving as an advocate for service members because his son, 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Bloch, is preparing to leave his home base of Twentynine Palms, Calif., for a second rotation in Iraq.
"As a member of the administration, I support USERRA," Bloch said before signing the statement of support. "But I also support it as a citizen and as a father of an active-duty Marine.
"Our commitment ... is the least that we can do to send a message to our wonderfully brave, talented and committed members of the military that we do support them and we do understand the sacrifices they're making," he said.
Bloch's organization, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, recently brought a suit against a federal agency with the Merit Systems Protection Board on behalf of a reserve military member. He didn't say which agency, but noted this is the first time a federal agency has been sued under the provisions of USERRA.
USERRA suits against civilian employers are brought by the Justice Department, but even those are rare. Bloch estimated roughly eight cases are referred to the Justice Department each year. Of those, perhaps five are litigated, he said.
With 1.2 million reserve-component service members in the U.S. military, that shows a very low percentage of cases aren't resolved at the lowest levels, he said.
Hall explained that ESGR has 4,200 volunteers who work to educate employers throughout the country. Points of contact are posted prominently in all Guard and reserve centers, and the names and numbers of state representatives are available on the organization's Web site.
In most cases, a phone call to an ESGR representative will solve a reserve- component service member's problem. The ESGR representative will meet with employers to explain the requirements mandated by USERRA.
USARRA is a law many employers are unfamiliar with, Bloch said. "That's just one they kind of overlook until it confronts them," he said. "Then, when they learn about it, generally they say, 'Oh, whatever we need to do, we'll do.'"