Jeffrey Rawson has worked as a firefighter for 21 years. But when it came time to pick a new lieutenant at the Pittsfield, Mass., fire department, Rawson didn't get the job. He believes it's because he's a Navy reservist, who served his country for a year in Iraq. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed, and filed a lawsuit on his behalf.
Since 1994, it's been illegal for employers to discriminate against someone who leaves his or her job for a period to serve in the military. Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto denies that any discrimination took place, but last month the city agreed to promote Rawson to lieutenant, reports The Berkshire Eagle, and shell out $22,000 of taxpayer money in back pay as part of a settlement.
In September 2010 Rawson was passed over for the job of lieutenant, even though he got a higher score then the competition on the qualification exam. In a letter explaining why he didn't get the job, the city cited two reasons. First was that he took too much sick leave, though a Department of Labor investigation found that Rawson actually took fewer sick days than average in the fire department.
The second reason that the city gave: "Firefighter Rawson was on military leave for the year of 2008."
The federal government took up Rawson's case. That year, the Department of Labor received 1,548 complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of military service. The Department of Justice brought this suit all the way up to federal court. It's unusual for such a case to get that far; the Department of Justice had only 12 such cases on its docket that year. After all, the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act is pretty clear that discriminating against anyone who dons the uniform of his or her country when called is a serious violation of the law.
Right before Mayor Ruberto left office, he finally agreed to settle. In addition to awarding Rawson backpay, the settlement requires the city's hiring authority, fire chief, and other supervisors to undergo training in the provisions of the USERRA.
A lack of training is the main reason why employers flout this law, according to a Washington Post investigation last month. Ironically, the Post found that the federal government is the country's greatest offender, making up 18 percent of the complaints filed with the Labor Department last year under USERRA.
The unemployment rate of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans stood at 17 percent in January of this year, according to a survey by the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And while formal complaints of discrimination are rare, the sense of discrimination is pervasive. Half of the unemployed veterans said that they did not feel employers were open to hiring applicants with service to their country on their resume.