Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jury verdict underscores rights of veterans

A federal jury in Portland, Oregon, returned a $985,000 verdict in favor of a National Guardsman terminated by Target after his return from military duty. The jury found that the employee was fired when he tried to come back to his old job and that it retaliated against him for asking for reinstatement. The evidence at trial was that Target management told the employee that his enlistment following 9/11 "would not be beneficial to his future career," that he was demoted following his return from active duty, and when the National Guard intervened on his behalf to have his previous position restored, Target terminated him. The jury awarded $85,000 in economic damages and $900,000 in punitive damages for the retaliatory termination. It found the demotion, however, lawful.

This verdict highlights the rights held by employees who take military leaves of absence. Military leaves are covered by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). USERRA provides reemployment protection and other benefits for veterans and employees who perform military service. The law applies to all members of the United States military, reserves, and national guard. Under the statute, military service is not only defined as actual active duty, but also inactive duty training. In sum, USERRA requires that all employers must grant military leave for all full-time and part-time employees for up to a period of 5 years, provided the employee provided appropriate documentation for the leave. Employers have no obligation to pay employees during a military leave, and employees have the option to use, but cannot be required to use, accrued paid time off (such as vacation days) during the leave. If a military absence was 90 days or shorter, the employer must restore the employee to his or her former position. If a military absence was 91 days or longer, the employer must restore the employee either to his or her former position if it is still available, or if it is not available, to a job that is equal to the former position in status and pay. Upon an employee’s return from a military leave of absence, the employee must be compensated at the rate of pay he or she would have received had he or she continued working during the period of leave. The employee must also be restored to full participation in benefit plans.

It is a good idea to have a military leave policy so that all supervisors and managers understand the rights and responsibilities under this law.