John D. Patrie, a letter carrier from Auburn, Maine, was denied reemployment with the U.S. Postal Service in 2016 following the conclusion of his military service.
Four years later, Patrie, who served with the Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing out of Bangor Air National Guard Base, is still waiting to get his job back.
Patrie, who turns 56 on Thursday, was activated in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He “served almost continuously” from September 2001 until Dec. 31, 2015, flying combat air patrols in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. During this period, the U.S. military increasingly relied on part-timers — guardsmen and reservists — on orders to run operations in support of active duty personnel.
All the while, Patrie worked at the Postal Service in Maine since 1997.
Throughout his numerous deployments, Patrie provided the Postal Service with copies of his updated orders, maintained his membership in the letter carriers’ union and “was placed in a ‘leave without pay’ status,” according to court documents.
“They knew my background when they hired me, and they had no qualms with it,” Patrie said.
According to the service’s own employee manual, the Postal Service “supports employee service in the Reserve or National Guard,” barring any action aimed to “discourage either voluntary or involuntary participation.”
Nearing the end of his active duty service, Patrie notified the Postal Service to request reinstatement, in keeping with the human resources guidebooks he had received.
The Postal Service, however, denied the request. Like the case of Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson, the service claimed Patrie had “abandoned” his civilian career in favor of a military one.
“I was awestruck,” Patrie said. “Every time I dropped off my orders, there was no mention of the word ‘abandonment,’ and every two weeks, I received…everything a normal worker would.”
In February 2016, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS), citing a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Passed in 1994, USERRA protects service members from facing workplace discrimination based on their military service, including mandated reemployment after a period of service. VETS “is authorized to investigate and resolve complaints of USERRA violations,” according to the Labor Department.
His case was referred to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) for representation before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). In April 2019, an administrative judge ruled that the Postal Service must reinstate Patrie and grant him “appropriate back pay” with interest and benefits “retroactive to 2016.”
“We are very pleased to have won this victory not just for Mr. Patrie but for service members everywhere,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said in an OSC release at the time. “Our country must honor its commitments to those who serve in uniform and defend our freedoms.”
But the Postal Service appealed the ruling, and despite the judge’s decision, the service has still not provided “interim relief” to Patrie. “Interim relief” refers to the reinstatement of employment during the appeals process, a decision the Postal Service is also appealing. It will be four years this month since Patrie’s struggle to return to his job as a letter carrier began.
A spokesperson with the Postal Service declined to comment on Patrie’s case due to “pending litigation matters" but asserted the service’s support for service members.
“The Postal Service fully supports its employees who serve in the armed forces as members of the Reserve and National Guard,” the spokesperson said. “The Postal Service has been recognized as one of the nation’s top employers of veterans and we have undertaken extensive training efforts to ensure human resources staff and managers correctly implement USERRA’s protections and requirements.”
“Everybody that I know, they went back to their employers, and their employers welcomed them back with open arms and said ‘thank you for your service,’” Patrie said. “[The Postal Service is] the only company that I know that said, ‘No, you abandoned your job.’”
Patrick H. Boulay, chief of the USERRA unit at OSC and Patrie’s lawyer, said the service has taken advantage of the MSPB being “in limbo” by “applying an arbitrary standard.” The board currently has no members, who are nominated by the president.
“This particular issue of ‘abandonment’ has really only come up with the Postal Service. It is something they have perpetuated for some time," Boulay added.
Barred from returning to his position, Patrie, who had to seek alternative employment, estimates he is losing at least $40,000 per year in income and benefits before overtime.
“They have delayed and obfuscated to the furthest extent possible,” said Boulay. “Mr. Patrie did everything by the book.”