You’re ready to bid active duty goodbye and settle down. But maybe you’re not ready to let go of the military, or you’ve heard you can make some extra money on the side, or you just want a backup in case civilian life disappoints you. So you’ve decided to become a reservist.
Now, how do you manage that with a regular job? Here’s a brief overview of your employment rights as a reservist, and some advice for making it work with civilian companies:
When applying for jobs, keep your status as a reservist discreet. Although the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) prohibits companies from denying employment to reservists, it’s a very thin line of legal protection. The ugly truth is that some employers regard reserve duties as a distraction. Few civilians understand the reserve schedule, and many believe that reservists deploy as often as active duty service members (a legacy of the mid-2000s).
In any case, some employers would rather hire someone they think will be available all the time (i.e. not subject to mysterious weekend training or potential deployments). And getting around USERRA is as easy as inventing a plausible reason to select another candidate over you.
So don’t tell potential employers you’re a reservist if you don’t have to. Remember that, legally, your reserve status has no impact on your qualifications, so you’re not required to tell your employer prior to hiring. It may not be the best option to “take the fifth” if you’re asked about it (saying, “You’re not allowed to ask me that question!” in an interview makes you look combative), though you might respond – nicely – with a question of your own: “Does that have anything to do with my qualifications or the job requirements?”
And even if you do tell the interviewer that you’re a reservist (maybe you think it will be seen as an additional qualification), always make sure you let him/her know that it won’t normally interfere with work.
While working at your new job, keep your reserve status discreet. There’s nothing worse than a co-worker who always acts like the job is a second priority. For some, that’s talking about when they’ll get a promotion, a bigger job, or a college degree. For others, that’s “brown-nosing” supervisors and/or management. But it also applies to reservists who constantly talk about upcoming drills or (yes, it happens) use military commitments to get out of work – specifically, volunteering for a commitment or making one up to get out of work, or even claiming that you need to “recover” and can’t make it in the Monday after drill (that happens too).
There’s a big difference between general complaining about work – there’s always something to complain about at work, and commiserating with co-workers can be a bonding experience – and letting your team know that you’re not really committed to them.
Do your best to keep military commitments from taking you away from work. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, as when your work schedules overtime on a drill weekend. But whether you can be at work or not is a conversation you should have with your supervisor or manager, not your co-workers.
For what it’s worth, keeping your reserve life separate from your work life will generally reflect well on you, as your fellow employees will regard it as something interesting and respectable and slightly mysterious. But if you shatter the mystery and make your reserve problems their issue, your co-workers are more likely to resent you for it.
Don’t surprise your boss with absences. USERRA requires that you provide your employer notice of military service, but it’s a bad idea to do it the day (or even the week) before you leave. Make sure you give your schedule to your boss as soon as you get it. If you know that one or more events will interfere with work, have a plan to deal with it when you bring it up.
Saying, “I’m going to make sure my assignments are complete” or “I will fully train my partner to cover for me” casts you as a professional looking out for the company interest (as well as making sure you don’t make more work than necessary for management), and may be the difference between acceptance of your reservist obligations and hostility.
Pay, vacation, and re-employment. USERRA does not require your company to pay salary or wages for time you are in military service. So if your company offers to pay, or makes up the difference between your military pay and your civilian pay, it’s basically a bonus. Also, USERRA prohibits employers from forcing you to take vacation during military service periods – though if you do (and you certainly can), you can pull a double paycheck between your military pay and your civilian vacation pay.
“Bad-faith rehiring” and other civilian benefits. There’s no easy way to say that reservists can be difficult for a company to accommodate. They hired you for your work, and having you gone periodically (or at unpredictable times) means they have to ask everyone else to fill in, or maybe hire a temp to help out until you come back.
So, unfortunately, there’s the temptation for employers to “get rid” of reservists. So-called “bad-faith rehiring” is the practice of re-hiring a reservist after military service to comply with the law, then firing that reservist shortly after. USERRA mandates that employers hire back reservists for at least six months if they’ve been deployed over 30 days, and for one year if the reservist has been deployed for more than 180 days.
Also, companies are required to offer you seniority and benefits on the same schedule as you would have received if you had continued working for them.
Keep in mind that none of these provisions prevents an employer from firing you for cause – if you come back from deployment and miss a bunch of work, for example, you can be fired even within the six-month or one-year window.
If you’ve been screwed because you’re a reservist… Despite legal protections, some companies do find creative ways to “get rid” of reservists by not employing them or firing them without sufficient cause. The Department of Labor Veterans Employment Training Service (VETS) will mediate disputes between civilian employers and reservists.
If your employer is a federal agency, the Office of Special Council will mediate your case. However, the best way to avoid causing trouble with your employer is to, you know, not cause trouble. Try not to let your reserve duties interfere with work, be a good employee, and make sure that you keep your superiors informed of commitments. Most civilians respect your service and most employers will work around your service requirements.
Heading Back To School? Read our article about being in the Reserves while attending College!
Balancing College and Life With Guard and Reserve Duty