Friday, October 19, 2007

Lawmakers to Propose Job-Protection Measure for Returning Iowa Soldiers

The last thing Iowa’s National Guard and reserve soldiers need to worry about while deployed to war is whether or not they’ll have a job when they return to their civilian lives. Knowing this, the federal government passed USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act) to help protect the soldiers' jobs, and now Iowa lawmakers want to enact a measure that would give the state more power to enforce the law.

At a Statehouse news conference Thursday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, and Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, announced the proposed legislation. While the federal law requires employers to hold a position for a returning soldier, backers of the new proposal contend that if an employer is not fully compliant with the law, a soldier’s only recourse is to file a lawsuit that can take years to resolve.

"It puts some more teeth into it," said McCarthy. "It's a more streamlined process, a process that's closer to home."

Employers, however, are no longer held liable if the position or business itself was discontinued during the time of the employee’s deployment. The proposal in Iowa would create possible criminal charges for violators and make the appeals process less cumbersome. It also would require employers to reimburse military members for pay lost during the time their jobs were denied to them.

To help illustrate the federal law’s shortcomings, Capt. Pam Reynolds, a physical therapist from Ames who served a 15-month deployment beginning in 2006, accompanied the lawmakers at the press conference. Upon returning from her service, Reynolds was told she could apply for a physical therapist position at Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames, a similar job but with lower pay.

"Most of us coming back are just wanting to get into the community," Reynolds said. "We definitely don't want to be where I'm standing right now. We just want back into our normal routine. While many veterans realize that federal law protects their jobs, the understanding is vague and many don't know how to react, Reynolds said. "We know there's a law out there," she said. "We don't know what it means."

To help bridge such gaps the Department of Defense created the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to help educate soldiers and employees about the federal law. The all-volunteer program also works with employers regarding their responsibilities. “We’re not litigators. We are just here to help enhance communication between employer and employee to help resolve any conflicts,” ESGR State Chair Barry Spears told the Iowa Independent. “We’ve had a good track record in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here, and we have not had a problem go unresolved.”

Most of the problems that do arise are namely because of misunderstandings, misinterpretation, or because of ignorance on behalf of either the employer or the employee said Spears. “In my line of work, I’ve introduced preventive measures to help keep these types of problems from arising and the same thing holds true with my work at ESGR,” said Spears, who is vice president of Iowa Health System -- which is responsible for managing hospital across Iowa.. “When there’s a deployment, by law, we go and do a mode briefing, and when the soldiers come home we do a de-mode briefing.” Moreover, the ESGR has placed posters on every bulletin board in every armory in the state that advertises their services.

On the employers’ side of the equation, the ESGR attempts to reach out and educate employers while simultaneously soliciting their support. The ESGR adopted and implemented its “Five Star Statement of Support Program” for employers, which is designed to help them put into place practices that will minimize or even eliminate problems. Another facet of the program is to inform and educate employers about their rights and responsibilities towards their employees who serve in the Guard and reserves.

Spears said he has heard of only a few cases in which employers were not compliant with USERRA, all of which were the result of being uninformed. Asked whether Iowa needed a law that would enforce the current federal regulations, Spears said that anything that can be done to help support these civilian member is important. “That’s why we should work hard to take care of them, so they don’t have to worry about these types of problems when they return from deployment,” Spears said.

Originally Posted on "Iowa Independent"

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