For the thousands of military personnel currently serving our country overseas, leaving the comforts of U.S. soil is a big step, but it's often made more difficult when faced with the challenge of leaving a stable job for a period of time, especially if you have a family that depends on that income.
Fortunately, troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or other parts of the world are protected by the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The law, enacted in 1994, helps make matters easier for troops leaving to serve time with the National Guard, Armed Forces Reserve or other uniformed services. One of the most important benefits of USERRA is that an employer must leave a job open for five years or 60 months for those leaving to join the military - when they come back within that time, their job - or one similar - must be waiting for them.
Back to normal
Paul Vann, a retired military officer and a defense expert in Washington D.C., says the act could have helped back when he first joined the military.
For more information on the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), visit http://www.osc.gov/userra.htm.
"For example, once I graduated from college I accepted a commission as second lieutenant in the Air Force, and I worked for UPS while attending college," says Vann. "If I would have returned within five years, I would have had my job back and the same amount of seniority and benefits. It's really a great help."
Vann went on to serve 10 years with the Air Force and 10 years with the Air Guard. He says this act is a huge benefit for all military personnel.
"What some employers are doing is allowing the people serving in the military to return no questions asked and still giving the families benefits because they know the burden and sacrifice the family is making," says Vann.
Lack of knowledge
Not all employers are doing all they should to help returning members of the military get back to work, mainly because they don't know or understand USERRA. Peter Siegel, a labor and employment law attorney in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., handles a number of USERRA-related cases every year. Siegel says that awareness is always the biggest issue - for both employers and employees.
"There is a lot of ignorance and lack of knowledge among them," he says. "The reason for that is the law is relatively new. Many employers don't know that it applies to both full- and part-time employees.
Set it up
Of all the rights laws he deals with, Siegel says USERRA is by far the most pro-employee, but in order for returning employees to take full advantage of the rights USERRA affords, they need to address numerous tasks before they leave.
"Start by giving notice," says Siegel. "Don't just disappear and call the employer and say, 'I'll be gone for six months.' We tell people that once they hear they have leave to write and send the letter right away. Put them on notice."
Those who worry about being retaliated against by their employer need not do so. Siegel says if this happens, the case is often decided in favor of the employee.
"I know someone who was called to Iraq, and he e-mailed the employer and got fired four days later for a fabricated reason," Siegel says. "The case settled because no one wants to go in front of a jury and say, 'I discriminated against an employee who was serving his country.'"
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