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Returning soldiers face new adversary.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

It was a recipe for trouble.

Although federal law aims to protect the civilian jobs of soldiers called to active duty, hundreds of Oregonians went to war during a recession that forced many companies to lay off workers.

As the state's economy reabsorbs the first 500 returning Iraq War veterans, dozens of soldiers have come home to problems with their jobs - or no job at all.

The veteran's program at the U.S. Department of Labor's Oregon office has already received 30 complaints involving Oregon reservists and National Guard members so far this year. That's up from an average of 23 per year the previous three years.

Given the size of recent deployments, military and labor officials say most employers have done a good job complying with federal and state laws intended to protect the jobs of service men and women.

"Generally, employers are more aware of the law than they used to be, maybe because of all the coverage of the war," said Bob Elliott, Oregon executive director of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. The Department of Defense-funded organization uses volunteer ombudsmen to try to prevent and resolve disputes between soldiers and their employers.

But that big picture is small comfort for soldiers who have come home to no job and financial uncertainty.

Army Sgt. Greg Gibb of Springfield is still job-hunting after losing his job with a local propane company in May, days before he was to return to work after a tour of duty in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

"To come back from a deployment you didn't really want to find out you don't have a job - I almost want to say it's really degrading," said Gibb, who joined the Oregon National Guard with the idea of providing disaster relief to his fellow Oregonians. "It's definitely depressing. You lose your self-esteem."

Army Lt. Joe Sis of Eugene said he was stunned by his unexpected layoff from a local architecture firm while assigned to guard the nation's second-largest stockpile of chemical munitions at the Umatilla Army Depot in northeastern Oregon.

"They were the start of my architecture career, the place I was going to work for 10 or 15 years," Sis said. "And they were my sole source of livelihood - Andrea was home with the kids, and we were in the process of buying a house. I felt like a huge chunk of my life was just gone."

Other reservists have enjoyed employer support beyond the legal requirements. Twin brothers Darin and Kevin Hassett both work for Weyerhaeuser's Northwest Hardwoods Division in Eugene. Both are reservists who have served in the Middle East.

Weyerhaeuser has gone beyond holding their jobs open by providing six months of extra compensation and benefits and checking in with their families, Darin Hassett said.

"It takes a weight off your shoulders, knowing you have a job waiting for you when you get home, and that there's all these extra benefits that help your family when you're gone," he said. "It's a relief, knowing someone's looking out for your wife and family."

Law misunderstood

The Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994 was designed to prohibit employers from discriminating against reservists with respect to hiring, retention, promotion or other benefits.

It also generally gives the reservist a right to re-employment upon return from active duty. But the law isn't always well understood by employers.

In the first eight months of this year, the Labor Department already has opened as many cases as it averaged per year during demobilization after the first gulf war, said Tonya Pardo, assistant director of the office's veterans program. And that's only a fraction of the employment problems soldiers are reporting to Oregon's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program.

Ombudsman Jack Cronise fields three or four complaints each week. Most are resolved in one conversation explaining the law. Others, such as the Sis case, merit an ombudsman investigation. Only a handful end up being referred to the Labor Department.

Employers can run afoul of the law even if they promptly re-employ a returning reservist, by failing to properly credit seniority or reinstate health insurance. They also must provide accommodations for soldiers who return from active duty with injuries, Pardo said.

"If they can't do the original job, the employer is supposed to place that individual in a job of like status and pay," she said, noting that her office recently received complaints about three such cases in a single week.

The law is also misunderstood by soldiers who assume that their jobs are protected while they are away protecting their country.

Protections not absolute

Just before reporting for active duty with the National Guard in February 2003, Joe Sis was heartened by the parting words of his employer, TBG Architects.

"They said, 'If you need anything, just let us know. And we'll look in on your wife and kids - maybe even stop by and mow the lawn,' ' he recalled.

Instead, three months later, TBG sent Sis the last thing a soldier needs: a layoff notice.

He received it the day his unit was deployed to guard the munitions in Umatilla. He thought his job was protected. So did his superior officers.

"I told them, 'I just lost my job,' and they said, 'Hey - they can't do that!' '

Yes they can.

Under the law, employers can legally terminate active duty soldiers under hardship circumstances - such as downsizings. But the burden of proof is on employers to show that they meet the exemption.

"Basically, the bottom line is, the person must be treated as if they never left," said Elliott, the executive director of the national Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program.

TBG said Sis would have been laid off in the spring of 2003 even if he hadn't been away on active duty. A sharp drop in business forced "a massive cut," principal partner John Lawless said.

In a company that had the equivalent of 15 full-time positions, Sis was among five people who lost their jobs.

"Essentially, with that dramatic a reduction, we felt that the re-employment act couldn't apply to us," said Lawless, who declined to discuss details of the case.

Sis acknowledged TBG's tough financial times and was reluctant to publicly criticize what he called "a great firm." But he questioned why his position- part of his training to become an architect - was targeted.

He claims two less-experienced, less-senior apprentices in the firm didn't lose their jobs. He also questioned whether he'd received the same severance package as laid-off co-workers who weren't called into military service.

Layoff challenged

Sis appealed to Cronise, who ultimately concluded he had no clear-cut discrimination claim.

TBG had no "seniority-based system," Cronise said, and had no written evaluations - positive or negative - of Sis' job performance.

"The decision of who to lay off was an objective call on the part of the boss," he said. And that would have been true even if Sis had not been away on active duty.

For Sis, the way the company handled his layoff was also painful.

"They had an opportunity to talk to me and say, `Hey Joe, things are looking tough,' ' he said. "Shortly before I left for Umatilla, I was able to come home for a weekend leave and we had a little, 'Thank God I'm not going to Iraq' party.

"One of the people who came was a principal in my office. He said, 'Hey - I'm glad you're not going to war. Do good in Umatilla. Give us a call when you get back.' Instead, I got that letter to think about on my six-hour drive to Umatilla."

The news poisoned his entire tour of duty, even rare weekend leaves home with his family. He worried about finding another job in Eugene's relatively small architecture community. He worried about running into his employer while emotionally upset.

Sis, 35, has found a job with another Eugene firm, Berry Architects. And the Army's Judge Advocate General arranged for the Oregon Bar Association to provide him with free legal counsel.

He recently reached a settlement agreement with TBG but details are confidential under terms of the agreement.

Return to Iraq pondered

Army Sgt. Greg Gibb has not been so lucky. Four months after returning from his second Middle East deployment, the Springfield resident is still looking for a job.

He learned he'd lost his job as a propane delivery truck driver just days before his return to work. His company, Suburban Propane, was downsizing because of a sales slump and his boss, Randy Adams, said Gibb had the least seniority.

"I honestly believe he fought for me to keep my job," Gibb said. "But budget issues were confronting all the Oregon stores.

"The frustrating thing I find is that I have applied for several jobs that I am more than qualified for, and I haven't even gotten a call back. I have to wonder whether that's because I put 'Oregon National Guard' down in my employment history."

Gibb, 34, says that fear is based on more than speculation. He contacted the Department of Labor after his first Middle East deployment in 2000 when a former employer told him " 'hiring a National Guard member was such a pain in the butt, I'll never do it again.' "

Unemployment has an added sting for returning soldiers, he said.

"You start to think that the job you did in the Army - either you didn't do it well enough, or you didn't do it for people who care enough," he said. "That's sad." Gibb, who is married, is continuing to look for work locally. But he's also thinking about signing up for another tour of duty in Iraq.

"It's not something I want to do," he said. "But it's one of the best options I have, financially. And you can only survive on unemployment for so long."

Doing the right thing

When Staff Sgt. Kevin Hassett first contacted Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve about his employer in early 2003, it was to seek help advocating for his employment rights.

The former Marine had volunteered for National Guard duty in the Middle East and managers at Weyerhaeuser's Eugene Northwest Hardwoods plant initially warned him that he would not be guaranteed re-employment because he'd volunteered to go.

They quickly reversed their position after local ombudsman Mike Wiley explained that federal job protections apply even to voluntary military service. And once that misunderstanding was cleared up, the company went well beyond its legal obligations to support Hassett and other reservist employees.

Weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Weyerhaeuser adopted a nationwide policy that pays reservists 50 percent of their base earnings during their first six months of active duty. Health insurance and 401(K) contributions also continue for six months. The soldiers also receive holiday pay and any bonuses paid to their co-workers while they're away.

"They don't have to do that," said Hassett's twin brother, Darin, back driving a fork lift at the plant after his own tour of duty in Iraq. "They've bent over backwards for me and my family."

Kevin Hassett has returned to Iraq, where he was recently nominated for a Bronze Star after rescuing an Iraqi family wounded in an ambush.

He and his brother nominated Weyerhaeuser for an Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve award. Sawmill supervisor John Powers proudly displays the "My Boss is a Patriot" award on his office wall.

Company spokesman Mike Moskovitz said the extra benefits for soldiers are part of Weyerhaeuser's efforts to "do what's rightonly for our employees, but for their families as well."

"Having a family member leave home to fight for our country is an extremely difficult and emotional ordeal for everyone involved," he said. "If there is anything we can do to make life a bit easier for families, we'll try to do as much as possible to relieve the hardship."

OREGON CONTACTS

National Committee for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, (503) 932-2362

Department of Labor Veterans' Employment and Training Service, (503) 731-3478

Judge Advocate General (for referral to free veterans' legal services), (800) 452-7500, Ext. 357

CAPTION(S):

U.S. Army National Guardsman Joe Sis missed his family, including daughter Aria, 4, when he was called for duty in Umatilla. A difficult situation was made worse when he found out he had lost his job.
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Title Annotation:Government; Some Oregon reservists and National Guard members find their jobs at home are in jeopardy
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 28, 2004
Words:2069
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