Congress pushes for disclosure of employers who violate veterans law

9:44 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 Local

The U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee has begun an investigation after revelations that the Labor Department is shielding the identity of employers who violate a landmark service members’ employment law, a committee official said this week.

This month, an American-Statesman investigation revealed that the Labor Department is refusing to disclose the identities of thousands of employers who have been accused of violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, which protects the jobs of reservists and National Guard members when they are called to active duty, even after multiple complaints or findings of fault.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who called for a House Veterans Affairs Committee investigation after the Statesman story, said he would like to see new disclosure procedures in place “before the new administration begins.”

“The public has a right to know when their rights are being ignored by an indifferent employer,” Doggett wrote in a letter to the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week. “Public access to this information would increase accountability, deter future illegal behavior and inform veterans.”

The 1994 USERRA law, which also prohibits employers from denying promotions or forcing service members into lesser jobs when they return, was used by thousands of reservists and National Guard members called to duty during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years. The Labor Department investigates hundreds of potential USERRA violations every year, though service members can also bring private lawsuits against employers.

Texas employers led the nation in USERRA complaints last year, and the state has dozens of employers with multiple USERRA complaints over the past decade. Among the offenders are dozens of federal, state and local governmental agencies, which likewise haven’t been identified.

More than 230 claims of USERRA violations were granted or settled after federal investigations over the past decade in Texas, and 16 Texas employers have had two or more claims granted or settled after Labor Department investigations.

As a consequence of the department’s stance, even violations by large corporations and government agencies employing thousands apparently escape public notice. Service members working for such employers, or considering working for them, remain unaware of what might be a poor track record when it comes to treating their employees who are called to active duty or weekend drills.

Labor Department officials told the Statesman they must withhold the names of employers to protect the privacy of veterans and service members who file complaints about them, citing the possibility of small employers with few employees. But the department also refused to name large state and federal agencies, saying they were unable to determine the local “presence” of an agency.

Doggett said he has been told a new Labor Department case management system could allow veterans to approve the release of the name of their employers. The department wouldn’t confirm whether the new system would allow for employer disclosure, saying it was still in development.

The Labor Department “looks forward to working with Congressman Doggett and others on how to best enforce USERRA while safeguarding the privacy and rights of those who served and sacrificed for the nation,” a department spokesman said in a statement.

A House Veterans Affairs Committee spokesman said its investigation has the “goal of finding a way to notify veterans and the public regarding employers who have violated USERRA while still protecting the privacy rights of veterans.”

It’s not clear if potential disclosure rules would affect only future USERRA complaints or also the thousands of cases that have been investigated by the Labor Department over the past decade.

Records obtained by the Statesman show that several employers regularly receive complaints in Texas, including a private company headquartered at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that has seen nearly two dozen complaints from airline pilots, ticket agents and freight movers; an Amarillo firm that has received 11 complaints from employees, all security guards; and a private company in Round Rock that has been investigated nine times after complaints from computer engineers and lawyers.

Government agencies are also among the chronic offenders, with nearly 40 percent of employers with multiple complaints in Texas being local, state or federal agencies, a rate of public sector malfeasance that is higher than the overall national average of about one-third.

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