This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), a fundamental support to our all-volunteer force.
With roots dating back to World War II, USERRA became law on Oct. 13, 1994, and has helped to build a more robust reserve component, enabling the world’s strongest military to be economically efficient and deeply woven into the fabric of American community life. USERRA strengthened and formalized economic protections that enable all service members’ careers to progress, without pause, while serving our nation.
USERRA was not the first law that advanced the employment prospects of our service members. Rather, it strengthened and clarified a complicated set of previous measures. On the eve of World War II, initial protections were written into the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (STSA). Congress wanted to ensure draftees could be confident about returning to their jobs after a call to duty. The Supreme Court’s landmark 1946 opinion, Fishgold v. Sullivan Drydock & Repair Corporation et. al., interpreted the STSA and set the guiding principles that became well established in American law and culture. Upholding the protections conferred by the law, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas wrote, “He who was called to the colors was not to be penalized on his return by reason of his absence from his civilian job. He was, moreover, to gain by his service for his country an advantage which the law withheld from those who stayed behind.”
From 1940 until 1973, Americans were drafted into the armed forces. Following the Vietnam War, however, the draft ended and the Reserve and Guard became critical components of our all-volunteer force. This strategic decision bolstered the world’s strongest military and helped bring Americans together with a common purpose. U.S. Army Europe Commander Crosbie Saint noted during the first Gulf War, “The early decision to call up the reserves, while probably motivated by necessity, turned out to be a major catalyst in consolidating American public opinion behind our strategy in the Gulf.”
The Reagan administration — taking note of the likelihood for significant mobilization of reserve components in future conflicts as well as the strain that confusion around veteran employment protections placed on the economy — appointed a joint Department of Defense/Department of Labor task force to review veteran employment protections. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented the task force’s recommendations to Congress and USERRA was signed into law.
Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, USERRA came into sharper focus as our nation experienced unprecedented reserve mobilizations. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, the Department of Labor published clear guidance on the law that remains in force today, in an easy-to-read plain-English question-and-answer format.
Under President Donald J. Trump’s leadership, the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) continues to administer USERRA by preventing discrimination and other violations through compliance assistance to employers; educating service members, veterans, and employers on their USERRA rights and responsibilities; assisting service members and veterans in determining USERRA eligibility and filing claims; and investigating and resolving USERRA claims.
Recognizing the importance of USERRA protections to the sustainment of our all-volunteer force, VETS works to prevent violations through expanded compliance assistance efforts in coordination with the Department’s Office of Compliance Initiatives. For instance, on Aug. 9, 2019, VETS produced a brief compliance bulletin with quick and direct USERRA guidance for employers that pay pension benefits. Service members and veterans can also use the free, online tool to learn if they are eligible for USERRA employment protections and how to file claims.
Over the decades, as our nation’s military strategy evolved, American sentiment has increasingly recognized that employment protections allow service members to serve our nation and succeed in civilian careers.
Today, we celebrate the anniversary of a pivotal law to our military’s readiness. USERRA strengthens America’s military as well as our thriving national economy. It is a law that we in VETS are honored to uphold for the American people.
Jonathan VanderPlas is the chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service.
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