DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE: 182ND ARMY NATIONAL GUARD REGIMENT)
GREENE: These are some of the voices of the 182nd regiment of the Army National Guard out of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We've been following members of the unit as they transition back to civilian life after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. A big concern for many of these soldiers is finding work. Before they came home, the Guard asked members of the 182nd how many were unemployed or looking for work. The answer: about one in three.
SPECIALIST BRIAN CANAVA: Specialist Brian Canava. I haven't found work so I guess it could be going better. But, I mean, it's been going all right. It's good to be home.
GERALD BLANCHARD: Gerald Blanchard. I own my own remodeling company, Blanchard Renovations. I was looking at getting a mortgage, but based on having a deployment, which cut into both tax seasons, I show a loss on my company so it's challenging getting a mortgage, even a VA one.
STAFF SERGEANT MIKE FITZPATRICK: My name is Staff Sergeant Mike Fitzpatrick. If I don't find work by June, I guess it would be a pretty dire situation if I was, you know, not fortunate enough to secure some sort of career-type employment by then.
GREENE: Those were members of the 182nd talking about their concerns over employment. That's the issue we're focusing on today in our ongoing series Home Front. The national unemployment rate is now a little more than 8 percent, but for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's even higher - at 10.3 percent. WEEKEND EDITION host Rachel Martin brings us more on the kinds of challenges these soldiers face when they have to go back to civilian life and a civilian job that may or may not be there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We also have some (unintelligible) back there so they can do a quick resume critique or answer any questions you have about transitioning or...
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Job fairs for veterans - they've been happening all over the country for the past few years. Now that the war in Iraq has finally ended and all U.S. combat troops are expected to be out of Afghanistan in the next couple years, fairs like this one recently in Washington, D.C. are becoming even more important, especially for members of the National Guard. According to the Army, these so called citizen-soldiers have been mobilized more over the past decade than at any other time since the Korean War, which means for many of them being in the National Guard has been their full-time employment. Now, that's changing and these soldiers are faced with trying to restart careers or start one from scratch.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you have a copy of your resume you'd like to submit?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No. I did not know that we're...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's OK. Not a problem.
MARTIN: To get a sense of just how tough it is for returning vets - and Guard members and reservists in particular - we called up Michael Haynie. He's the executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. And he says soldiers today are coming home to an employment situation that's as bad as it's ever been.
MICHAEL HAYNIE: Our National Guard and reserve components face a unique challenge because the model is predicated on their ability to move in and out of a civilian employment situation as they're activated and then deactivated. In this country, their employment rights are protected by the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA it's called. In a perfect world anyway, our Guard and Reserve members who are activated should have the ability to make a seamless transition back to the jobs that they left when they were brought on active duty.
MARTIN: So, you say in a perfect world.
HAYNIE: I do.
MARTIN: So, is the world imperfect?
HAYNIE: It is.
MARTIN: Are these jobs always protected?
HAYNIE: Well, there are several issues. One, the burden of proving discrimination under USERRA actually falls on the individual, and it's a high burden. You know, what's important to note about USERRA is that it doesn't only protect the employment right, meaning the return to employment, but by law employers are not allowed to, for example, deny someone a deserved promotion as a consequence of being called to active duty or let military service be a factor in determining someone's salary increase or things like that. So, very often the discrimination is not necessarily explicit.
MARTIN: But what about the employers themselves? This is a kind of sacrifice that they're making, right?
HAYNIE: It is.
MARTIN: When they decide to hire someone who is in the Reserves or the National Guard, they're essentially agreeing to go without an employee for as long as a year at a time.
HAYNIE: Potentially that's true. And, you know, to be clear before I respond any further, I want to say I'm certainly not - as a veteran myself - I am certainly not suggesting grounds for an employer to discriminate. But that said, it does present a challenge, especially for small and medium-sized companies. To be honest, our larger companies are in a much better position to absorb some of that burden, if you will. But if you think about a small to medium-sized company of 50 to 100 employees, if that Guard or Reserve member, for example, happens to be a key supervisor or a highly skilled technician, many of the small or medium-sized companies are not in the position where they have the resources to backfill that lost employee. So, it really does create a challenge for some of those employers.
MARTIN: Because an employer has to deal with these deployments, is there any evidence that you've seen that small to medium-sized companies are actually avoiding hiring National Guardsmen because they're gone?
HAYNIE: That's a sticky question. You're not going to find an employer who is going to say "I am not going to hire a veteran." That is illegal. At the same time, you will hear employers talk about not necessarily targeting vets in their recruitment efforts because they're concerned what it might mean for their organization to bring someone into their workforce that may be lost to them for a year or more if they're called to active duty.
KENAN TORRANS: Sometimes, I often find that the disputes that we encounter are the result of a lack of understanding of the law.
MARTIN: This is Kenan Torrans.
TORRANS: I am chief of investigations for the U.S. Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service.
MARTIN: Which means he oversees investigations of labor discrimination against veterans. And Torrans says the number of complaints is going up.
TORRANS: 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. Currently, 70,000 are still on active duty and more than 776,000 have come back.
MARTIN: That's more than three-quarters of a million Guard and Reserve members who've now returned to civilian life.
TORRANS: 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.
MARTIN: And Torrans says there's still a major disconnect between the military and the civilian population - between employers and their employees returning from war.
TORRANS: Employers remain very supportive of our service members - they really are - and they want to do the right thing. And when these disputes arise, it's usually because they didn't know what their obligations were.
MARTIN: Staff Sergeant 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.
FITZPATRICK: I worked for a hotel for a while. And even granted that I would give them a schedule for the entire fiscal year ahead of them, I would still wind up being scheduled on my drill weekends to work. And then it would be a very contentious conversation with my manager about, you know, hey, I asked for this day off. You've known since the beginning of the fiscal year. And he'd be like, well do you really have to go? And it's like, well, this is, actually, there could be a warrant out for my arrest if I don't show up for this drill weekend this weekend.
MARTIN: 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.
SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: That's the wrong attitude.
MARTIN: That's Senator Patty Murray of Washington State. She's the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and she recently proposed a bill to toughen up the laws protecting veterans from labor discrimination.
MURRAY: 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 by being a part of the Guard and Reserve, 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. So, this is - you're an employer in the United States, this is part of your responsibility.
MARTIN: So, this is the employment picture for a returning service member: there aren't a lot jobs out there in general and it's even harder for members of the National Guard or Reserves. There are laws designed to protect vets from losing their jobs or promotions because of their service, and employers aren't supposed to discriminate against members of the Guard or Reserves - but it's hard to prove when it happens. And so this is the world Staff Sergeant Mike Fitzpatrick is reentering. He 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. Fitzpatrick 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.
FITZPATRICK: I, in thoughts of desperation, have also thought about, you know, maybe even hanging it up, because I have to think about my family and their future and my ability to provide for them. And if the fact that my service might become a hindrance to that, that's something, you know, a very serious thought.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Since Fitzpatrick got 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.
GREENE: That report from WEEKEND EDITION's host Rachel Martin. And to hear more stories about the 182nd Infantry regiment, you can check out our Home Front series online at NPR.org.
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