See that minefield? It's not your imagination. It's called USERRA and it's one tricky little patch of ground that can leave your agency with mud all over its face — and with lots of civil court time unless properly navigated.
To recap what you probably already know about it, USERRA stands for the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA, 38 U.S.C. 4301-4335) and it's a federal law passed to create employment equity for workers who are also members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
USERRA's official goals, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, are to ensure members of the military don't suffer setbacks and reprisals in their civilian careers due to military service, move seamlessly back into their civilian jobs and face no on-the-job discrimination based on that service or training.
USERRA was designed to protect those who serve in the National Guard and as reservists, allowing the country to keep its military strength at a higher level without employing a strictly full-time military.How, what and why
Back when U.S. lawmakers approached the idea of initiating a peacetime draft, they wanted to make sure military service didn't have the unintended effect of robbing those who served of their day jobs. These concerns led to passage of the Veterans' Reemployment Rights (or VRR). VRR grew into a behemoth that was difficult to interpret or understand, even by lawyers. At no point did this become more obvious than during the Gulf Wars: Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which took place in the early 1990s.
USERRA is credited with clarifying and streamlining the complicated set of laws under VRR and helping ensure that the military has a constant pool of talent from which to draw when the numbers of regular members of the armed forces available for assignment dwindle. But it also has an unintended effect on employers who are required to have an open position for those returning from the military. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its deployment of emergency personnel — in this case, law enforcement officers.
It's no secret that law enforcement likes military veterans and vets mirror that love. Those with prior military service seem to naturally acclimate to the discipline and demands of the job, are knowledgeable about firearms and tactical operations and have an innate understanding of the chain of command. However, with deployments growing longer and agency budgets shrinking at a never-before-seen pace, some agencies see vets with active ties to the military as liabilities they can barely afford.
Under current law, agencies stay on the hook for jobs filled by deployed vets, which can prove both expensive and inconvenient. But for veterans aspiring to dual careers as both cops and military reservists, USERRA is a huge step up from the days of yesteryear.The bad old days
Pedro Gonzales, who retired from the San Antonio Police Department after serving as a sworn officer for 32 years, remembers what it was like before USERRA.
"It was very hard being caught between two masters," says Gonzales, who served with the Air National Guard. At the time he was both a guardsman and police officer, Gonzales was required to attend drill a weekend a month. Weekends were the police department's busiest in terms of calls for service. Gonzales says there were attempts in the early years to punish him for his dual service, but as time passed, the department became more accustomed to his schedule, and more accommodating in regard to his military obligations. Plus, more and more law enforcement officers kept their ties to the military, making the situation more common.
"When they passed the law, it really helped because as long as you had orders, the city couldn't prevent you [from doing your military duty]," he says. But even though there is strong legislation in place, that doesn't mean agencies aren't often hit with complaints about their handling of law enforcement officers with active military ties. It's a situation that spawns both frequent complaints and lawsuits.