National Guard Members' Next Battle: The Job Hunt

The National Guard's 182nd Infantry Regiment returned home in March from a year in Afghanistan. One in three said they were unemployed or looking for work.

The National Guard's 182nd Infantry Regiment returned home in March from a year in Afghanistan. One in three said they were unemployed or looking for work. Becky Lettenberger/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Becky Lettenberger/NPR

Before the soldiers of the 182nd Regiment of the Army National Guard came home, they were asked how many were unemployed or looking for work. The answer: about one in three.

As more soldiers return to civilian life, a civilian job may not be there waiting. Service members with the National Guard have the extra challenge of convincing employers to hire them when they may be called to active duty for a year or more. There are laws designed to protect vets from losing their jobs or promotions because of their service, but it's hard to prove when it happens.

'A Unique Challenge'

According to the Army, these so-called "citizen soldiers" have been mobilized more in the past decade than at any other time since the Korean War. That means for many of them, being in the National Guard has been their full-time employment. That's changing now, and these soldiers are faced with trying to restart careers — or start one from scratch.

Michael Haynie is the executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. He says soldiers today are coming home to an employment situation that's as bad as it's ever been.

"Our National Guard and Reserve components face a unique challenge because the model is predicated on their ability to move in and out of an employment situation as they're activated and deactivated," he says.

Their employment rights are protected, Haynie says, by the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA.

"In a perfect world anyway, our Guard and Reserve members who are activated should have the ability to make a seamless transition to the jobs that they left when they were brought on active duty," he says.

But that's not always how it works. He says a number of issues come up with people who have to move in and out of employment.

"One: the burden of proving discrimination under USERRA falls on the individual — and it's a high burden," Haynie says.

The law not only allows service members to return to work – it also forbids employers from letting military service determine things like promotions or salary.

"Very often the discrimination is not necessarily explicit," Haynie says.

Smaller Companies' 'Burden'

Having an employee that may be gone for a year or more can be difficult for business too. While Haynie doesn't want to give employers excuses to discriminate, he does say the issue can be challenging, especially for smaller companies.

"To be honest, our larger companies are in a much better position to absorb some of that burden, if you will," he says.

Companies with 50 to 100 employees, though, may not be able to replace a key supervisor or highly skilled technician, Haynie says.

"You're not gonna find an employer that's gonna say 'I'm not gonna hire a veteran.' That is illegal," he says. "At the same time, you will hear employers talk about not necessarily targeting vets in their recruitment efforts because they're concerned about what it might mean for their organization to bring someone into their work force that may be lost to them for a year or more if they're called to active duty."

Complaints On The Rise

Kenan Torrans oversees investigations of labor discrimination against veterans for the U.S. Department of Labor Veterans' Employment and Training Service.

"Sometimes, I often find that the disputes that we encounter are the result of a lack of understanding of the law," he says.

Torrans says the number of complaints are going up.

"We've been in a formal conflict now, at a state of emergency since 9/11. We've had 846,494 members of the Guard and Reserve that have been activated," he says. "Currently, 70,000 are still on active duty, and more than 776,000 have come back."

That's more than three-quarters of a million Guard and Reserve members who've now returned to civilian life.

"So, if you look at those numbers, you would anticipate that the number of complaints — just by the duration and the numbers mobilized — would go up," Torrans says.

There's still a major disconnect, he says, between the military and the civilian population — between employers and their employees returning from war.

"Employers remain very supportive of our service members. They really are. And they want to do the right thing," he says, "and when these disputes arise, it's usually because they didn't know what their obligations were."

Staff Sgt. Mike Fitzpatrick joined the National Guard right out of college in 2010. The Guard generally requires members to attend drills at least one weekend a month, and Fitzpatrick says getting that time off can be hard. He would give his manager a schedule a year in advance, but would still get asked to work on days he needed off.

"And then it would be a very contentious conversation with my manager," Fitzpatrick says, "and he'd be like, 'Well, do you really have to go?' And it's like, 'Well ... there could be a warrant out for my arrest if I don't show up for the drill weekend this weekend.' "

Employers' Responsibility

Soldiers looking for jobs say they can get interviews, but as soon as an employer finds out that they could be gone for weeks or even a year as part of their military service, the conversation can stop cold.

"That's the wrong attitude," says Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State.

As the chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, she recently proposed a bill to toughen up the laws protecting veterans from labor discrimination.

"We have a policy in this country that we've had for a very long time, that if we have men and women who are willing to protect all of us ... that we will provide them the support of this country, of our businesses, of our families, of our communities, to make sure they're not lost when they come home," Murray says. "So ... you're an employer in the United States? This is part of your responsibility."

'Service Might Become A Hindrance'

Fitzpatrick got home from Afghanistan with the rest of the 182nd National Guard regiment about a month ago, and since then he's been on leave, spending time with his new wife and their two young daughters. He says he's proud of his military service, but he knows the job search he's about to start might force him to make a tough choice.

"I, in thoughts of desperation, have also thought about maybe even hanging it up, because I have to think about my family and their future and my ability to provide for them," he says. "And if the fact that my service might become a hindrance to that — that's ... a very serious thought."

Since Fitzpatrick got back home, he and his family have been living off the military salary he got for his deployment. He knows he has to kick his job search into high gear; his military pay expires in just over a month.

Produced by Tom Bullock and Tom Dreisbach.

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