Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lawmakers One Step Closer to Protecting Returning Soldiers’ Jobs

(Update: The House passed House File 2065 this morning. There were no votes against the bill and it now heads to the Senate. Employers who fail to follow the law face possible simple misdemeanor charges with up to 30 days in jail and fines up to $625. Under the proposed changes to the law, a county attorney could request the Iowa Attorney General follow through with prosecution. That change would help expedite soldiers’ claims and help ensure swifter justice ensure, lawmakers said.)

Iowa’s soldiers may no longer have to worry about whether they will have a job when returning from active-duty deployment. A measure, House File 2065, which protecting returning Iowa’s National Guard and reserve soldier’s jobs passed its first hurdle.The House Veterans Affairs Committee approved the bipartisan initiative 15-0 Wednesday. The plan will ensure that soldiers called to active duty can return to their jobs after service at the same pay and status level.

"Men and women called to active duty deserve our support,” McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, the lead sponsor of the bill said in a statement. “After serving our country and being separated from their families, the least we can do is ensure an easy transition back to civilian life, which includes going back to their job at the same pay and status level.”

The legislation was first proposed at a news conference in Des Moines back in October by Bailey and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines.

While the federal law, USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act), requires employers to hold a position for a returning soldier, proponents of the new mesure 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," McCarthy said in an October statement. "It's a more streamlined process, a process that's closer to home."

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Ray Zirkelbach, D-Monticello, echoed McCarthy’s response. “The bill will give attorneys at the county level more power to go after and prosecute employers who are not compliant with USERRA in a more timely manner,” Zirkelbach told the Iowa Independent. Zirkelbach is optimistic about the bill, the first one introduced in the 2008 session, and thinks it has a good chance of passing in the House by the end of the week.

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 October 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 told the Des Moines Register in October. "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."

Often times, employer’s non-compliance with USERRA is not intentional, rather, employers didn’t know about their obligations under the law. To help remedy this, the Department of Defense (DoD) created the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), which helps educate soldiers and employers about the federal law. “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 in October. “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. 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 members 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.

Bailey Introduces Bill to Protect Veterans Employment

No comments: