A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate are sponsoring legislation aimed at closing a loophole that they and veterans groups say let employers fire employees who temporarily leave their jobs to serve on active duty.
The new bill, called the Justice for Servicemembers Act, would make it clear that Congress never intended that the old one, Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, which dates to 1994, was voluntary -- or something an employer coguarduld challenge in the courts, lawmakers and veterans groups said during a press conference on Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, neither Congress nor organizations like Military Officers Association of America, which has supported USERRA from the beginning, could anticipate the lengths that some employers would go through to continue to treat these patriots unfairly," Aniela Szymanski, director of Veterans and Survivor Services at MOAA, told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Szymanski is a Marine Reserve lieutenant colonel select who served in Afghanistan.
MOAA is one of several veterans groups lending support to the bills, designatedS-3402 andHR-5426, respectively. Others include the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Reserve Officer Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The Commissioned Officers of the U.S. Public Health Service also back the legislation.
So far the Senate version has only Democrat sponsors, while the House bill has support from three Democrats and three Republicans.
"We will be soliciting Republicans and I'm very hopeful it will have bipartisan support," Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said.
Co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota said Congress has previously passed bills strengthening USERRA with bipartisan support and expects this measure will see the same success.
At least two federal district courts have previously ruled that Congress was not clear in whether employers may demand returning soldiers go to arbitration in order to return to their jobs or receive benefits added during a deployment or active-duty service.
This legislation intends "to reverse this troubling trend once and for all," Franken said.
It was scheduled to be debated during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on health and benefits legislation on Wednesday.
Navy Reserve Lt. Kevin Ziober said he experienced one of the most egregious violations of the legislation.
"On my last day of work [before deploying] they hosted a farewell party for me," he said, "with cake, balloons, camouflage netting [decorations] and cards and gifts. It was a great feeling."
Four hours later, he was summoned to the human resources office, where he was fired.
When he returned and tried to get his job back, the company went to court, which said Ziober would have to submit to arbitration -- an agreement he was directed to sign shortly after taking the job.
He is continuing to fight the termination that the company said was due to poor performance.
The new law, Blumenthal said, would give any employee who believes they were terminated or denied pay or benefits because of military service the ability to go to court without incurring filing costs or the possibility of being burdened by the employer's fees and costs.
Szymanski, who is also a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary Law School, said she also knows from personal experience as well as that of other veterans that such actions by employers cause enormous strain on the ability of members to stay in the reserves and Guard.
"There should never be a circumstance where a reservist is forced to choose between a civilian career and their country," she said. "[But] this becomes a very real choice ... And more often than not they're forced to choose their civilian career because of family."
An estimated 900,000 National Guard members and Reservists have been called on to deploy over the past 15 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, officials said.
Given the critical role the reserve components play, anything that would prompt someone not to or reenlist in the Guard and Reserve is a threat to readiness, they said.
In addition to Blumenthal and Franken, other Senate sponsors include Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois.
House backers include Democrats David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, as well as Republicans Walter Jones of North Carolina, Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Jackie Walorski of Indiana.