Returning Reserve Troops Are Still Being Denied Their Old Jobs, Witnesses tell House Labor Subcommittee
An increasing number of military service members and U.S. contractors working abroad are being discriminated against on the job and are left with little ability to hold their employers accountable for it, witnesses told the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions today.
"If a worker is wronged while on the job, then that employee should have every opportunity to be made whole under the law," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), chairman of the subcommittee. "Unfortunately, there are too many loopholes in the law today and we have the responsibility to not allow any instance of discrimination to go unchecked."
Reserve troops returning home from active duty in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are finding it difficult to get their jobs back, government statistics show. According to a U.S. Defense Department report, more than 33,000 reserve service members from 2001 to 2005 have complained to the agency that their employers failed to give them their jobs back - as required by law - or received a reduction in pay and benefits.
"Job security for those who are serving, and for those who will be called to serve in the future, is essential to not only maintain the moral of our troops, but to sustain a voluntary armed forces," said Michael Serricchio, an Air Force Reservist who had difficulty getting his job back with his employer after his deployment to Saudi Arabia ended in 2003. "If our country does not insist on job security, the continued vitality of our volunteer armed services is in grave danger."
Kathryn Piscitelli, an employment attorney, cited loopholes in the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which guarantees service members the same pay, seniority, status and benefits when they return from active duty that they had when they left. "I have seen a number of ways in which the statute could be strengthened, to provide core comprehensive protection for these employees," said Piscitelli. "These people have made major sacrifices and should not be subjected to diminished employment opportunities as a result of their lengthy, and sometimes repeated, absences from the workplace."
In addition, voluntary emergency personnel - including firefighters and emergency medical services workers - testified that a national law is needed to protect them from termination or demotion when called to duty during a national emergency. Only eight states protect these workers when called during an emergency.
Even if an employer engages in discriminatory activities against a worker, there is little guarantee that the employee can look towards the courts for help. A rising number of employers require new workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that force aggrieved employees to press their dispute with an arbitrator - often chosen by the employer - and not a judge or jury.
Jamie Leigh Jones, a former Halliburton contractor in Iraq, was allegedly drugged and raped by co-workers. After Jones received initial medical attention, she told the subcommittee she was confined without food and unable to contact her family for approximately a day. Since U.S. law does not protect U.S. workers who are employed abroad, Jones decided to sue. "When I decided to pursue a civil suit, I was informed that within my thirteen-page employment contract that had an additional five pages attached, included an arbitration clause," said Jones. "I learned that I had signed away my right to a trial by jury."
Michael Foreman, co-chair of employment discrimination task force of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, testified that in 1979, only 1 percent of employers used arbitration for employment disputes; current estimates show that 15 to 25 percent of employers have adopted mandatory employment arbitration procedures. "The stark reality is that all too often, employees have no choice but to surrender their rights and accept mandatory arbitration," said Foreman. "Many employees do not have the luxury of choosing when, and under what conditions, to sign arbitration agreements, because employers often make such agreements a job requirement."
The subcommittee also learned that in spite of historic civil rights laws intended to protect American workers from discrimination on the basis of religion, many of these workers still face legal discrimination on the job. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, religious discrimination claims have increased by 83 percent from 1993 to 2006, compared to an 8 percent drop in racial discrimination claims over the same period. However, court rulings in the past several years have severely limited the protections afforded to workers.