Feds go quiet on push to protect rights of citizen-soldiers


Highlights

Members of Congress sought change to rules shielding employers who violate protections for service members.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said the Department of Labor has stopped sharing information.

Texas leads the nation in number of employers who have been accused of violating USERRA law.

Six months ago, members of Congress asked the Department of Labor to change rules that were shielding the identity of employers who routinely run afoul of a landmark law meant to protect the jobs of U.S. service members and reservists when they are called to duty.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee opened an inquiry into the matter last year after an American-Statesman investigation into violations of the law in Texas found that a number of employers in the state repeatedly took action against workers — including firings, demotions and other disciplinary action — because of absences related to their military service. Yet the Labor Department refused to name the employers that violated the veterans’ rights.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, was among those who called for more accountability, saying that public disclosure of the names of the employers (including private firms and local governments) with violations would deter them from breaking the law.

Labor Department officials initially agreed to discuss changes to their disclosure rules.

But after a meeting in December, Labor Department officials have stopped responding to inquiries on the proposed changes, Doggett said.

“We’ve been unable to get any meaningful update from the Department of Labor,” Doggett said. “We haven’t been able to get an answer.”

Nor has the department responded to numerous voice mails and emails from the American-Statesman since March.

Late last year, a Labor Department spokesman said the 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.”

In Texas alone, 16 employers have had multiple complaints granted or settled after Department of Labor investigations into violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, better known as USERRA. Several companies regularly receive complaints, including one Dallas-area company that has racked up nearly two dozen complaints over the past decade. An Amarillo firm has received at least 11 complaints from its citizen-soldier employees, according to the Statesman investigation.

The 1994 USERRA law, which prohibits employers from firing, denying promotions or forcing service members into lesser jobs when they return to the workplace, has been 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 possible USERRA violations every year, and service members can also bring private lawsuits against employers.

Some public agencies violate law

In denying several Freedom of Information Act requests for the names of employers last year, 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 met with high ranking Labor Department officials in December, including Assistant Secretary Michael Michaud, in hopes of finding a way to release the names of employers who violate the act. Doggett said the officials told him they worried that naming individual employers, even those with multiple violations, could dissuade employers from hiring veterans and service members.

“They felt that anything that reflected negatively (on employers) would be counterproductive to their efforts,” Doggett said.

He said the officials also argued that many complaints against employers are found to be unjustified or are the result of employers having a poor understanding of the law.

But a Statesman analysis of USERRA complaints in Texas shows that government agencies, which presumably would be familiar with the law, are also among the chronic offenders. Nearly 40 percent of employers with multiple complaints in Texas are local, state or federal agencies, a rate of public sector malfeasance that is higher than the overall national average of about one-third.

Doggett said that in his discussions with the Labor Department, officials said they would consider giving individual veterans the choice of whether to make their complaint, and presumably the name of the company, public. But Doggett said he has since heard nothing on the possibility of adding such a check box to agency records.

Party politics to blame?

In recent days, Democratic lawmakers have accused the Trump administration of directing federal agencies to “refuse requests for information from Democratic members of Congress,” according to a letter obtained by the Washington Post. The lawmakers said they had been stymied in requests for information both about issues related to ongoing investigations into Russian election meddling and local matters such as drinking water.

Though the USERRA rules were not cited, Doggett originally sought the change before the arrival of the new administration, fearing inaction.

Daniel Foust, past president of the Reserve Officers Association in Texas, said he was disappointed that the federal government hasn’t taken steps to address the issue.

“It’s difficult to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the administration’s expressed support for our military service members and their refusal to share information of repeat offenders of USERRA,” he said.

Texas employers led the nation in USERRA complaints in 2015, and more than 230 claims of USERRA violations have been granted or settled after federal investigations over the past decade.

Last year, 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.”

Last week a spokeswoman said the recently constituted committee “has reached out to the Department of Labor to get an update on where they are in their records management overhaul.”



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