- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Second in a series of occasional editorials on wounded veterans returning from Iraq.

President Bush and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao could do a great service for veterans returning from Iraq — particularly the severely wounded ones — by underscoring one thing for American employers and veterans alike: That the law makes it a patriotic duty to rehire just about any employee who left to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is unmistakeable to anyone who follows the regulatory arcana and relevant court cases. But too many smaller companies and too many veterans are unaware of how widely federal law provides for veterans’ re-employment. Last year, 1,320 service members, mostly Reservists and Guardsmen, filed complaints with the Department of Labor; clearly, a serious problem exists.

Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (enacted in 1994 but preceded by laws stretching back before World War II), service members are entitled to jobs comparable to the ones they left for Iraq, even if their enlistment was voluntary and even if the veteran signaled no intent to return to the job — for up to five years of military service, subject to a few minor conditions. This is the case even if he or she cannot perform the same functions as before the period of service.

This takes on a new urgency with Iraq because a disproportionate number of service members are returning with multiple injuries sustained in improvised-explosive device attacks. The law requires employers to share in the burden of these wounded service members’ misfortune; they cannot simply forget about these service members.

Many employers either aren’t clear about the law or actively try to skirt it. But even in cases where employers are in the midst of financial difficulties or rounds of layoffs, courts have regarded veterans as a special class of employee to whom special rules apply. For instance, last year, Agilent Technologies was ordered by the U.S. District Court in Colorado to pay $383,761 to Lt. Col. Steve Duarte, a Marine Corps reservist who was deployed to Iraq, for firing him a few months after he returned from service. Agilent had been belt-tightening and viewed the termination in light of its budgetary stresses. But the presiding judge ruled that Col. Duarte “paid a steep price for his military deployment during his employment with Agilent” and deserved better.

The law is intended “to keep jobs as bridges unburned behind you,” Pentagon lawyer and USERRA expert Sam Wright told us this week. In reality, it also forces employers to bear part of the burden when our soldiers come home.

We owe it to these service members to make the rules as clear as possible. Mrs. Chao has made public-service announcements on the subject and the Labor Department’s regulatory moves are very clear. But a high-profile address by the president or Mrs. Chao would go lengths to ensure everyone is aware of what the law provides for veterans returning from Iraq.

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