The Officer November-December 2013 : Page 20

20 the O fficer / N Ovember –D ecember 2013

Reservists Need Not Apply

By Mary Flynn

Young Veterans Face Soaring Unemployment Levels; Employers Find Ways to Skirt USERRA Laws

In 2011, Sergeant Antonio Tomas found himself in the position of many returning Reservists: unemployed and looking for work. SGT Tomas had spent nearly a year in Iraq, where he worked as a petroleum supply specialist. Once home, he spent months searching for a job that would support his family.

SGT Tomas and his wife have five children, and their eldest son, Shawn, suffers from a kidney disorder and fragile X syndrome, a condition that causes an intellectual disability.His son requires a special diet, nightly dialysis, and monthly appointments in Washington, D.C., an hour away from their Virginia home. While his wife was able to work, money was still tight, and bills were piling up.

“I felt helpless,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to feed a family and provide the things that they need, especially for Shawn, because he needs a lot.” SGT Tomas said he’s seen similar job struggles among his troops.

“A lot of my Soldiers don’t have jobs, and it’s hard for them to get jobs,” he said. “It’s not just me.” Recent statistics suggest that unemployment among members of the Reserve Component runs three times that of veterans overall. Their numbers are ofen diffcult to nail down, and the problem goes unnoticed. And while recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggest the overall rate of veteran unemployment may be improving, many experts believe the numbers do not forecast conditions for long-term improvement and say the situation may even get worse.

According to the BLS, as of 2012, the unemployment rate for Gulf War II veterans stood at 9.9 percent, while the non vegteran unemployment rate was 7.7 percent.

Youngest Veterans Face Obstacles

So where does that leave Reservists? Zeroing in on numbers specific to the Reserve Component is where things get tricky and, too ofen, overlooked. Te BLS lumps together anyone who has ever served in the Reserve Component. This means a person out of the Reserves for years would fall into this group, thereby skewing the number. No one government agency is currently tracking the exact levels of unemployment among Reservists.

The youngest veterans are perhaps the hardest-hit. Te unemployment rate for veterans aged 18 to 24 was 18.4 percent in August, according to ROA’s analysis of veteran unemployment data. This group is made up almost entirely of Reservists, as all veterans from this age group coming of active duty would need to finish their eight-year obligation.By comparison, the overall unemployment rate for all 18- to 24-year-olds (veterans and nonveterans) in August was14. 7 percent.

Another age group with a high percentage of Reservists is the 25- to 29-year-old veterans, whose unemployment rate was 13.5 percent in August.

“It’s not as bad as it used to be, but compared to other Americans, people in the [Reserve Component] are getting a raw deal,” said Ted Day walt, the president and CEO of Vet Jobs.

Citing the disadvantage for Reservists in the civilian job market, Mr. Day walt said, “They can’t have a continuum of normal civilian employment, which means they can’t get promoted, can’t work toward retirement programs, they don’t make as much money. … This is wrong.”

Vet Jobs has been tracking unemployment among veterans for 14 years. Mr. Day walt said the organization notice dA major increase in the number of unemployed Reservists after DoD instituted a new call-up policy in 2007. Te change meant shorter, but more frequent, call-ups of the Reserves and National Guard.

Deployment Strains Employers

In the years after the policy change, unemployment has been rampant among 18- to 24- and 25- to 29-year-old veterans, those dominating much of the Reserve Component.Mr. Daywalt said it was an indication that employer support is waning.

“They tolerated it when [Reserve Component members] were gone two weeks to a month,” Mr. Daywalt said. “But when they started calling up for a year, multiple times, the companies said, ‘We’re not supporting this.’ ” A 2012 study by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) surveyed representatives from nearly 70 companies on their attitudes about hiring veterans; more than a third were concerned about future deployments when eyeing a Reservist as a job candidate.

While many employers recognized the value in hiring veterans overall—they see veterans as a group as very effective, resilient, and loyal, among other attributes— there are also reasons why they won’t hire veterans, such as challenges with skills translation and negative stereotypes.

Reservists face many of the same challenges and stigmas, but they have the added challenge of finding employers who are supportive of weekend drills, annual training, military schools, and deployments. Mr. Day walt said it can be hard for some companies—especially small businesses—to operate that way.

“Companies cannot run efficiently with their most critical element—their human capital—being taken away for 12 months at a time,” Mr. Day walt said.

Stealth Discrimination Well Documented

While (the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) forbids employers from discriminating against Reservists, stories of stealth discrimination are abundant.

When SGT Tomas began looking for work, he said he was always upfront about the fact that he was still in the National Guard. “I ask if that’s going to be a problem … and everybody says, ‘No, that’s not a problem,’ but I honestly think it is.“These companies that are out there stress that they support Reservists and the military, and you apply, and they don’t even give you a call back,” SGT Tomas said.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Edwards is an Iowa National Guard pilot who is just beginning to re-enter the civilian workforce after an 11-month deployment to Afghanistan. He is required to have a certain number of fight hours each year.

“As National Guard pilots, we have to maintain the same minimums as active-duty pilots,” he said. Those fight hours are in addition to the one weekend a month and two weeks of annual training, he said, and as a result, aviators spend approximately twice as much time in training as a traditional Guard member.

“Obviously, I would like to think that that is not a factor, but we are all human,” he said. “If I was a supervisor hiring someone, it would be hard not to factor that in.”

While discrimination is difficult to prove during the hiring process, USERRA is also meant to protect the rights of Reservists already in the job as they return from deployments.

Many Reluctant to Complain

USERRA mandates that returning service members be promptly reemployed in the same position—including benefits, pay, and seniority—that they would have maintained had they not been called away for military service. USERRA can be difficult to navigate, and determining whether a service member meets the criteria to pursue legal action can be challenging. For help, service members can turn to ROA’s Service Member Law Center. Retired Navy CAPT Sam Wright, the director of the Service Member Law Center, has written hundreds of law reviews on USERRA, the Service members Civil Relief Act, and other laws that affect Citizen Warriors

“Our primary function is to tell people what the law is,” CAPT Wright said. He answers approximately 800 inquiries a month from lawyers, advocates, service members, and others seeking assistance. He points out that they do not accept clients or provide legal assistance, but rather provide information on the applicable laws.

But fling a USERRA complaint is not always an easy option for everyone. Private First Class Ruben Mentaberry worked as an armored-transport driver in San Diego. He says he was called into his supervisor’s office after returning from his 18-day annual training

He said his supervisor gave him the option to resign, citing instances where PFC Mentaberry had been late for work and one occasion where he’d been written up for taking a day of sick leave. PFC Mentaberry claims the write-up was unfounded. He still had 20 hours of leave when he took the day, and he later checked the company policy, which said he could not be written up for taking leave.

In the months prior, PFC Mentaberry said that on drill weekends, his supervisor would complain how the change in schedule would leave the company short-staffed. In the end, PFC Mentaberry resigned from the job. He said his ultimate goal is to work in law enforcement, and he was concerned that getting fired would threaten his chances of getting a job with the police department. He didnt think it was likely that he would file a USERRA complaint.

“I don’t want to go back to that place,” he said. “What’s the point? Even if I can get the job back, my manager is going to be hating me, so he’s going to try to find any excuse to fire me.”

Companies Finding USERRA Loopholes

Employers are finding more ways around USERRA than ever before. In 2012, Major Ty Shepard, director of the California National Guard Employment Initiative, Work for Warriors, found that unemployment rates among California Reservists were as high as 50 percent. What he learned was that many of the Reservists were fired before they deployed—and it was completely legal.

“Businesses have grown savvy,” he said.

In today’s deployment schedule, he explained, units know a year in advance when they’ll deploy, and service members let their employers know. Employers could then legally fire a service member six or nine months out, well before the 90-day window protected under USERRA, Shepard said.

MAJ Shepard explained that many companies have also started hiring employees to work no more than 39 hours a week. “If they’re not full-time employed, then [employers] can terminate them when it comes time to go on a deployment or anywhere else,” he said.

MAJ Shepard said he does n’t blame businesses for operating this way. After all, they need to make money, and they are operating within the guidelines of the law. Still, it’s good for him to know how companies work in regard to hiring Reservists so that he can fulfill his mission.

In the year since the program began, it has placed more than 1,400 Soldiers and Airmen in jobs, and MAJ Shepard says it is looking to expand to the Reserves for all seven seals in California.

As for SGT Tomas, he was able to land a job after four months of looking, and he recently moved to a slightly higher paying position with another company in July.

“I’m just happy to be working now,” he said. “Te pay is not all that great, but it’s something. I’m always looking to find a better job that makes more money. Until I find what I need, I’ll just keep looking.” As with so many other Reserve Component issues, unemployment among members of the Reserve and Guard is often presented as a murky, if not incomplete, picture. To ensure gaps in reporting don’t lead to oversight in action, ROA remains active on the Hill and in the Pentagon.

At a recent testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, ROA Executive Director Major General Andrew Davis, USMC (Ret.), urged lawmakers to take action to immediately curb the rising trend of stealth discrimination, citing the harsh realities of today’s hiring environment for Reservists.

“Despite their unique skills and qualifications, Reservists are dismissed in favor of individuals perhaps less qualified but certain to be available,” MajGen Davis said. “Across the desk from a prospective employer, a Reservist—unlike his or her active duty counterpart— represents the economic strain of a new hire with the future certain deployment of a Citizen Warrior guaranteed to be activated at least one out of every five years, even in peacetime.

“Left unchecked, recruiting and retention in the Reserve Components will plummet. We must act now, both to restore faith among those currently serving and to preserve the trust of future generations of America’s Citizen Warriors.”

Mary Flynn is a multimedia journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area. She served eight years in the Army National Guard, including two yearlong deployments. In 2004, she served as a broadcast journalist in Iraq; in 2008, she served as the Media Relations Non commissioned Officer in Charge at Guantanamo Bay. This is her first feature for The Officer.

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