Reservists fight to keep jobs

Chicago Sun Times

Lt. Col. Edgar Montalvo has been deployed overseas six times in 10 years. First Sgt. Brandi Schiff has spent more time overseas for the military in the last six years than in the United States. Montalvo and Schiff aren’t full-time soldiers. They’re Army Reserve officers. And they say their civilian careers have suffered as a result.



Montalvo had been with the same employer for 19 years. Then, six weeks after returning from an overseas deployment, he got a negative job review and immediately accepted a buyout to leave. Schiff was laid off six hours after telling her bosses the Army was sending her to Afghanistan.




At one time, being a reservist or National Guardsman typically meant one weekend away each month and two weeks each summer. Today, with wartime deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, part-time soldiers find themselves being called up again and again, for months, even years at a time. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than 542,000 reservists and guardsmen have been activated.

“There are only two types of people in the Reserves today: those who have already been deployed and those who are going to be deployed,” says Montalvo, 45, of Tinley Park, who returned from Iraq last October.








PART 1: Where are all the jobs?
Veterans nationwide are facing a tough job market, but in Illinois the post-military opportunities are even more scarce.
Front line to the unemployment line
Trading a home base for a Home Depot





PART 2: Reservists fight to keep jobs
More than half a million reservists and Guardsmen have been called to active duty in Iraq. When they come home, will they have jobs?




Unemployment, veterans and non-veterans
Veterans have historically had a higher unemployment rate, but among 20- to 24-year-olds, that rate has been climbing dramatically since the beginning of the war in Iraq.

Illinois vs. Indiana
Among Illinois veterans — those who served from World War II to Iraq — the employment rate currently is the same as non-veterans. But in neighboring Indiana, veterans enjoy a higher rate of employment than non-veterans.


And the military is only going to increase its dependence on reservists because that’s cheaper than maintaining a larger full-time military, says Montalvo, who leads a Reserve unit in Forest Park.

With reservists away from their jobs more, some employers are balking at holding those jobs for them when they return, as federal law requires. Others are laying off or firing reservists and guardsmen, or making things so uncomfortable they quit, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found.

The number of complaints filed with the U.S. Labor Department accusing employers of job discrimination against reservists and guardsmen went up 38 percent from the military buildup that began after the Sept. 11 attacks until 2005 — from 908 complaints in 2001 to 1,465. It dipped last year to 1,320 — a decline the Labor Department attributes to its aggressive efforts to get the word out to employers about the law. Illinois has seen a similar pattern of complaints.

‘Laws are weak’



People who try to remain in the military part time sometimes face pressure at work to either leave the military or leave their jobs, lawsuits and interviews with returning reservists and investigators show.

“As long as reservists are getting deployed as we are, employers are going to get hip to the law and figure out how to beat it,” says Tice Ridley, 33, an Army reservist who plans to quit as an investigator for the Cook County public defender’s office and go full time with the Army.

The Iraq war veteran filed a job-discrimination complaint in 2004, telling the Labor Department his union president was told Ridley wouldn’t be promoted because “it would hurt the efficiency of the office if he were deployed.”

The public defender’s office denied that. Labor Department investigators didn’t find any violations. His case remains in union arbitration.

“The laws are weak,” says Ridley. “If that’s all we have, as soldiers we’re screwed.”




The Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act — known as USERRA — protects military reservists and National Guardsmen from job discrimination based upon their membership in the military. Reservists and guardsmen returning from deployment are entitled to be reinstated to the job they held before being activated — with the same benefits, raises and promotions they’d be due if they had never left. Employers also are required to excuse reservists and guardsmen for drills and annual training. Also, though they don’t have to pay them for time missed while away on duty, employers can’t count it against their paid vacation days. And reservists and guardsmen cannot be fired solely because of their military service.


Some companies say they’re just watching the bottom line and can’t afford to be without their employees for the extended periods now demanded of them — though, in interviews, no employer would complain on the record, citing fears their comments might be viewed as unpatriotic or as an admission they discriminate.

“From an employer’s point of view, hiring a National Guardsman or reservist is a riskier venture that could potentially lead to higher costs,” says Victor Devinatz, a professor at Illinois State University’s College of Business whose specialty is labor and management. “They might want to be patriotic and support the war, but they also have a business to run.”

‘A waste’ to complain



About a fourth of the complaints filed last year in Illinois with the Labor Department claiming job discrimination against military members were “granted” or “settled.” In some of those cases, the employers reinstated the workers. In some, they awarded back pay or vacation time, or promoted them. In total, the employers also paid out more than $72,000 to the workers. But in nearly a third of the cases, Labor Department investigators ruled the complaints had “no merit,” or they couldn’t find sufficient evidence that the employers had violated the law.

Many complaints by part-time soldiers against employers involve workers in highly skilled jobs who were fired or laid off, or were given poor performance reviews when they went away on active duty. In interviews, they say they expected the government to ardently defend them, but they say the investigators sometimes did too little to pursue their claims.

“It was a complete waste of time,” says Schiff, who has been in the Army Reserve for 16 years.

She filed a complaint with the Labor Department in 2003 after being laid off from a public relations job at the firm Citigate Dewe Rogerson in Chicago in 2002 — hours after she informed her employer she was being deployed to Afghanistan.

Schiff, 34, is now deputy director of the Army’s public affairs office in Chicago. She says she regrets filing her complaint because her Labor Department investigator didn’t aggressively pursue her case.

“She didn’t call one person,” says Schiff. “She just talked to the lawyers of the company that I worked for and believed what they had to say. Then, she called me in and said: ‘Case closed. There is no cause.’ ”

Company blamed layoffs



According to the Labor’s Department’s file on the Schiff investigation, obtained by the Sun-Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Citigate Dewe Rogerson representatives told a government investigator that Schiff was part of a companywide layoff and wasn’t singled out because of her military involvement.

“But I was the only one in Chicago laid off — and, by coincidence, the only one in the Army, too,” says Schiff.

Schiff told the Labor Department investigator that, earlier, she complained that a more recent hire was given a raise but she wasn’t. She says the supervisor told her that was because she’d been “off playing Army in Bosnia” eight months before getting deployed to Afghanistan.

“Yes, it’s technically illegal to do what they did to me,” Schiff says. “But they sure got away with it. And it wasn’t that hard.”

Citigate Dewe Rogerson did not respond to calls requesting comment.

Exceptions to the law



Schiff complains that the law meant to protect reservists’ jobs shouldn’t allow the exceptions it does — for instance, the Labor Department has allowed employers to cite companywide layoffs or economic hardship in successfully defending themselves against discrimination complaints.

“There are situations where that is possible,” agrees John Muckelbauer, a senior investigator for the Labor Department. But he adds, “It is rare. The employer can claim that it is impossible or that they are unable to re-employ the individual. But that’s not the end of it. They have to prove that that’s the case.”

The law is the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994, known as USERRA. Enacted after complaints during the Persian Gulf War, it requires companies to reinstate reservists and guardsmen who are returning to work from active military duty — with all the benefits, seniority and pay raises they would have gotten if they never left. It also says reservists and guardsmen can’t be fired or denied promotions because of their military duty.

Claim: fired for being deployed



But Army Reserve Lt. Col. Charles Schlom says in a federal lawsuit that’s just what his former employer did. An Army reservist for 17 years, the 44-year-old Algonquin man was fired from his job as Midwest regional sales manager for Marley Cooling Technologies in March 2005 — after he’d told co-workers he’d soon be deployed to Afghanistan but before he got his official orders and told his bosses

Schlom filed a complaint with the Labor Department.

“It was absolutely, completely worthless,” he says of the agency’s investigation. “I don’t think they did anything.”

The Labor Department initially sent Schlom a letter saying it was recommending its lawyers take his case to court. Muckelbauer says that was because Marley wasn’t complying with an investigator’s requests for information. But when the company finally provided information, the agency decided Schlom had been fired for cause.

“The reasons cited were lack of knowledge of the product, confrontational manner with various representatives and that, overall, he didn’t seem to produce the way the company wanted him to produce,” Muckelbauer says.

Schlom says he received sales awards every year for three years before he was fired and exceeded sales goals every year.

He says the Labor Department never told him of its final decision. So he hired a civilian lawyer, George Aucoin, who is also a colonel with the Marine Reserve.

Aucoin, who specializes in representing reservists and guardsmen in job-discrimination cases, describes Schlom’s firing as a “preemptive termination. When they found out that he was soon to receive orders for Afghanistan, they took that opportunity to wrongly terminate him. They thought they were covered because they did it before he had his official orders in hand.”

Representatives of Marley Cooling Technologies, which is based in Overland Park, Kan., did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

‘Bigger issues to tackle’



Aucoin says the Labor Department doesn’t pursue cases like this, involving just one person. Instead, he says, the agency focuses on bigger cases that it’s more likely to win — like the government’s class-action lawsuit, filed in January, accusing American Airlines of reducing benefits of its pilots who’d taken military leave.

Veterans’ representatives with the Illinois Department of Employment Security say they advise veterans not to tell potential employers they’re in the Reserve — though such advice goes against agency policy.

“If you’re not asked, don’t answer. It’s none of their business,” says one Illinois veterans-employment representative, who spoke on condition he not be named, saying agency officials told him and other reps not to talk to a reporter. “After you’re hired, say: ‘Oh, by the way, I have drill on the weekends once a month.’ Now, let’s see what happens. Now, you have a federal case.”

Difficult decisions



In November 2003, Edgar Montalvo took a buyout from Peoples Gas, where he’d worked for 19 years. He’d been back at work just six weeks after returning from an eight-month deployment to Belize when he was told he was going to receive a negative job review — his first as a manager, he says.

Montalvo says he was criticized for not doing enough — the result, he says, of an additional staffer being hired while he was gone, leaving him less to do.

Instead of staying and filing a complaint with the Labor Department, he asked for a buyout.

“I wasn’t going to be in any key position or [on any key] projects because management couldn’t afford to give it to me and risk having me gone,” says Montalvo, who started as a meter reader and, by the time he left, was a cash analyst with an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Montalvo has 25 years with the Reserve. Beside Iraq and Belize, he has seen duty in Honduras, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait. He’s up for a promotion next year, to colonel.

“If I hadn’t been in the Reserves, I’d be a CFO by now,” he says — a company’s chief financial officer.

Rod Sierra, a spokesman for Peoples Gas, wouldn’t talk specifically about Montalvo. But Sierra says the company is supportive of its reservists.

After Montalvo left Peoples Gas, he ended up taking a job for a while in St. Louis, but his wife and two children stayed in Tinley Park. He’d come home to them on weekends. After a year of that, he got deployed to Iraq. When he came home in October, he decided to look for another job. It took five months.

During that job search, his wife, a former reservist, suggested Montalvo leave his military status off his resume. He couldn’t.

“I don’t know that I want to work for a firm that isn’t enthusiastic about me being in the Reserves,” he says. “This is who I am. It’s what I do. I serve my country

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