November 2, 2008 – With the Pentagon relying so heavily on the National Guard and Reserve to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan – 650,000 have been called for active duty since 9/11 – the least you’d expect is that after they serve, they get their old civilian jobs back.
There’s a law, called USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act), that says their employers have to take them back at the same pay.
But what 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl found is that despite the law, thousands of guards and reservists come home to find themselves demoted or penalized, or out of a job completely.
Army Reservist Joanne Merritt is a nurse who works with wounded soldiers. When she got back to her regular job in 2006 after a two-year deployment, she was told her job was gone since she had been away too long.
“We had to give that to somebody else. So, your job is no more,” she remembers.
Despite the law, she couldn’t have her job back. “Yes. It really hurt. It hurt because I just wasn’t expectin’ this.”
Considering who her employer is, why would she expect it: Merritt works at, of all places, the VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga.
Asked if the Veterans Administration did not understand this law, Merritt says, “Yes. And I said, ‘You know what? I am not going to accept this.'”
Merritt filed a complaint against the VA, and within a couple of weeks got her old job back, plus the back pay and leave that she was entitled to, which the VA had also denied her.
Asked if she has any sympathy for the VA though, considering she was gone two years, Merritt tells Stahl, “I’ve been in the military for 25 years now. At that point, it was 23. The president writes an order, gives an order, I follow it. What excludes the VA? No, ma’am, I do not have any sympathy. I feel that the laws are there for reasons.”
According to the Pentagon, over 10 percent of guardsmen and reservists report having problems when they return to work; tens of thousands have filed complaints or lawsuits against their employers.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Hall is the top man at the Pentagon overseeing the Reserves and National Guard. He says he is aware that there are reservists and guardsmen working for the Department of Defense and in the Pentagon who have come home and also encountered problems.
How does he explain that?
“Well, we want the government to be the model employer…,” he says. “What I’m saying is that the federal government’s entire leadership has committed that they will be. Do we need to do better? Yes.”
The federal government is one of the largest employers of guardsmen and reservists, but they also work at over 100,000 private companies. Lawsuits under USERRA have been filed against some of the largest companies, like Wal-Mart, American Airlines, and UPS.
It’s in that private sector where 60 Minutes discovered that a rebellion is brewing.
“The private employers cannot supplement, cannot support the full cost of defending this nation on our balance books,” says Dave Miller, vice president of Con-way freight, a national trucking firm.
After 9/11, he saw it as a patriotic duty to back his guard and reserve employees 1,000 percent.
But now his patience is wearing thin. Not only are the deployments long, his drivers, mechanics and others are being called up for a second and third tour of duty, often on such short notice it’s hard to find a replacement.
He says they typically get about three weeks’ notice – not a lot of time to run an ad, and bring people in for an interview. And he says they never know how long the deployment is going to be.
With over 50 of his workers deployed right now, Miller says the company is spending about $4,000 apiece to train their replacements, and as much as $100,000 if a worker has to be relocated from another state.
Take the case of one of his drivers, Jeff Vineyard. In 2005, Vineyard was sent to Iraq for a year as a member of the Indiana National Guard, where he says he was driving jet fuel.
While he was away, Con-way did more than the law required by continuing his family’s health coverage, and making up the $10,000 difference between his Con-way salary and his lower military wages.
“What if you worked for a company that didn’t have Con-way’s attitude?” Stahl asks.
“I wouldn’t be able to be in the Guard or the Reserves. ‘Cause I wouldn’t be able to take care of my family,” Vineyard says.
In all, Con-way spends at least half a million dollars a year to support its reservists and guardsmen. But it’s not just the financial burden on employers.
Consider what happened in the city of Sherwood, Ore. Its 20-person police department was left without its boss when Police Chief Bill Middleton – an Army reservist – was called up twice in the last six years.
Middleton’s first tour of duty was a year; his second – as an interrogator and investigator in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay – was even longer: 18 months.
Middleton thought back home everything was working fine, and he didn’t have the sense that he was leaving them in the lurch.
But the city manager told 60 Minutes things were not working fine – that the police department was suffering without a chief from morale problems, and rival factions. So he hired someone new and tried to persuade Middleton to sign a contract, demoting him to “deputy chief.”
“He had said it was because I was in the military, and he wanted somebody there who was there all the time,” Middleton tells Stahl.
Asked if he can understand that, Middleton says, “No. I mean, I’ve given that city 12 years.”
“But you were gone a total of two and a half years,” Stahl points out.
“Correct,” Middleton acknowledges.
He felt he had the law on his side, so he refused to sign the contract. And when he returned home, he still had the title of police chief, at the same pay, but he was forced to report to the new “director of public safety,” who had moved into the chief’s office.
“And he’s going to give me guidance on how to run the police department, that I had run for 12 years,” Middleton says.
Asked if he thinks the lack of support for this war has anything to do with it, Middleton tells Stahl, “Sherwood was very supportive of the war, as long as it doesn’t affect their city and how it runs. It’s very easy to say, ‘I support the troops,’ but it’s very hard to be without one of those troops for a long period of time. And there’s a lot of guys over there sacrificing an awful lot, and they really need to feel like they’re being supported, and they have their job when they come back.”
Middleton has filed a lawsuit, claiming his rights under the USERRA law to the same job with the same status were violated. He’s seeking a million dollars in damages.
Asked what she thinks employers are really most worried about, nurse Joanne Merritt says, “About us havin’ to go again. Because that was one of the things I was asked. ‘What are your chances of you leavin’ again?’ And I said, ‘I’m still in the military.'”
“Chances are pretty good,” Stahl comments.
“I mean, we’re at war,” Merritt says. “Chances are great that I would have to leave again”
And that’s what happened: Merritt is now on her second tour, and so is Jeff Vineyard, the Con-way driver. He’s back in Iraq, after less than three years at home in-between.
Employers – both public and private – seemed to accept the arrangement at first. They wanted to “support the troops.” But now with the repeated deployments, the realization that “this isn’t going to stop,” some companies are trying to avoid reservists altogether.
Ted Daywalt, president of VetJobs.com, a site that helps military people find jobs, says he knows companies that simply refuse to hire them. “I had one senior VP of HR tell me that if I had three candidates for a senior position in the company, and one of them mentioned they’re in the Guard or Reserve, he would only have two candidates left. And I said, ‘You know, that’s illegal.’ And his response was, ‘I can always find a reason why not to hire somebody,'” he says.
He thinks that is happening a lot. “You can prove it to a point. There are surveys done that show that upwards of 70 percent of the employers won’t hire a person who’s active in the Guard and Reserve,” Daywalt says.
Dave Miller of Con-way says he wants to continue hiring them: he likes their discipline and willingness to work long hours. But he and other executives are agitating for compensation.
“If the military’s going to take our people 30 percent of the time, let them pay 30 percent of the healthcare cost,” Miller says.
He says the government doesn’t give his company any help, like tax breaks. “Nothing,” he says. “We have gone and petitioned Congress to in fact provide tax incentives for companies to do the right thing for these citizen soldiers.”
Congress’ response? Miller says they are still discussing it.
A tax break to help very small businesses became law in June. But Miller says the costs to all companies will go up since the Pentagon has announced a new policy of calling up the National Guard and Reserves on a regular basis: every five years, even after the current wars are over.
“In using the Guard and the Reservists this way, in other words, for regular deployments, the charge is that you’re just doing it to save money. And you’re doing it on the back of these employers,” Stahl remarks.
“I think it’s the most appropriate use of America’s forces. We have 2.6 million people under arms. 1.4 million are in the active duty. 1.2 are in the Guard and Reserve, 45 percent of the military. And what we do is we save money actually by that because a Guardsman/Reservist doesn’t cost as much, and so I think it’s an appropriate use of the total force,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Hall says.
But Con-way’s Miller says, “If the Department of Defense is going to rely more heavily on reserve and guard, they should take into consideration that all they’re doing is shifting costs at that point in time. And there are those that probably won’t accept that shifting graciously, at least silently. We won’t accept it silently.”
He and his fellow businessmen will have a hard time getting government help in this era of big deficits. The Pentagon is making other concessions, though: they’re reducing the length of each deployment to just one year, and call-up notices are going out anywhere from six to 20 months in advance.
Secretary Hall, who recently visited reservists on duty in Kuwait, says he hears what the companies are saying, but his priority is the troops, and their job security. He expects the USERRA law to be enforced, which is why he made this astonishing offer.
“Let me make this commitment right on the air, if I could just for a moment. If there’s any guardsman or reservist or family member that has a problem, call my office. Call me personally,” he told Stahl. “My number is 703-697-6631. And I will ensure that I put a case worker on it. If necessary, I will call the head of the company or the agency personally. I don’t just make that offer just precipitously. I mean that because we’re concerned about it. My office will react, and I invite people, if they have a problem, tell me.”