NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Seabee Petty Officer Second Class Erik Balodis
once hoped to retire at the company he grew to love.
But those aspirations were crushed when automotive parts retail giant Pep
Boys fired him in June 2002 after he returned from Navy Reserve training.
Company executives contend they laid him off because of poor performance. But
Balodis claims the retail chain sacked him because of his military service. He
is suing the company for $5 million in lost wages and punitive damages, but
hopes the lawsuit will help others.
"If nothing else, it's going to send a tremendous lesson to the work force
and also mostly to Pep Boys to save maybe more people that this might have been
happening to," said Balodis, who is in southern Spain for annual Reserve
His case has attracted some headlines and put greater attention on worker
rights as the military leans heavily on reservists and Guardsmen to help fight
the war on terrorism and rebuild Iraq. The battle
also has spawned concerns that companies might penalize some of the tens of thousands
of part-time soldiers when they return to their full-time jobs.
The lawsuit alleges that Pep Boys fired Balodis because his Reserve duties
kept him from his job as a district manager in Tucson, Ariz., adding that the
retail chain pressured him to choose between his military service and work.
Hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the company reportedly sent a
letter to the Navy requesting that Balodis not be called up because he was too
important. When Balodis returned from a Navy exercise on June 27, 2002, the
company fired him for "job abandonment."
Pep Boys spokesman Bill Furtkevic called the accusations by Balodis
Furtkevic said that the American Legion awarded the company for its support
of the military and that more than 25 reservist employees were deployed.
"The whole allegation is just appalling to my organization," he said. "The
founders of my company were World War I buddies who pulled together their money
to start this company. The president of our company is retired U.S. Army. The
CEO of our company was a Canadian military paratrooper. The fact that someone
would believe we would terminate an employee because of their military
obligation is preposterous."
The company fired Balodis, Furtkevic said, for insubordination, not his
frequent military duties.
In a Sept. 10, 2002, letter to Balodis' lawyer Andrea Watters, Pep Boys
attorney Todd Hale explained the company's reasons for the firing. He wrote
that although Balodis had been recognized as an "outstanding and valued
employee," his performance and judgment declined to "an unacceptable level."
He noted several memos, including one in February 2002 in which Balodis was
demoted to store manager. Another mentioned that Balodis tried to implement a
pay raise for an employee and a bonus for another without approval.
Balodis, however, disputes any suggestion that he did a poor job.
"Pep Boys is stating job performance. But, yet, at the time they're saying
‘job performance,' I was awarded a district manager award of the quarter," he
Many reservists deployed overseas are watching Balodis' case closely.
Thousands of Reserve and Guard members are scheduled to complete their
deployments and return to their jobs as teachers, police officers and salesmen.
By law, they must return to a job of the same pay and grade. Time spent on
deployment should be counted toward pensions and step raises. In short, they
should be treated as though they had never left.
The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve helps educate employees and
employers about the rules and mediates disputes between Reserve and Guard
members and their bosses.
The Defense Department agency receives about 400 calls a week, or about
20,000 calls each year, said Col. Thomas Hart, an Air Force reservist who is
the director of operations.
"Trust me, we're earning the tax dollars," he said. "We're putting in a lot
Hart estimates that about 10 percent of those calls involve conflicts between
employers and employees.
The agency's 4,200 volunteers across the country help resolve about 95
percent of the employee-employer disputes. But those that can't be worked out
are handed over to the U.S. Department of Labor. A small percentage are decided
With the most reservists deployed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there are
concerns that the number of conflicts will rise.
"Up to now, companies have just been very, very supportive," Hart said. "But
now the folks are coming back and we'll see. … Now is when you would expect to
find the issues. If there's going to be a problem, now is the time it is going
"This will be the real test of that support."
Returning to a job at lesser pay or receiving a demotion can be devastating,
especially after returning from a deployment.
Balodis said his termination ruined him financially and tore apart his
family. He had to go on unemployment until he found another job working at a
department store for slightly more than half the $90,000 in salary and benefits
he earned at Pep Boys.
Last year, his family of four had to sell their four-bedroom home and declare
bankruptcy. The ordeal also took its toll on his marriage. Last September, he
and his wife divorced. He blames the stress created over the firing led to the
"It was like a nightmare," he said. "Looking back sometimes, it brings tears
to my eyes."
Things are better now. He has a new girlfriend and hopes to remain on active
duty with a Navy construction battalion.
A U.S. District court judge ruled last year that Balodis must arbitrate his
claim instead of going to court. Depositions are scheduled for June. Regardless
of the outcome, however, Balodis said that he has grown from the experience.
"I've learned to realize you can have everything one moment and it can be
taken away right there," he said. "And you kind of have to learn to live by
your means at that point. I definitely have learned a lesson in life and am not
too old to not move on and start a new life."
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