Opinion: Facing down job discrimination against vets

We must ensure that laws and related guidance covering employment discrimination against veterans are vigorously enforced.

Credit: Dean Rohrer/NewsArt

Credit: Dean Rohrer/NewsArt

This Sunday marks National Hire a Veteran Day, which provides an important opportunity to discuss the new reality involving veterans.

Surprisingly to some, one of the most glaring and rising types of employment discrimination is the discrimination against our nation’s veterans. This is a particularly troubling development considering that post-9/11 veterans have suffered from higher unemployment than other veterans and civilians.

Significantly, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have put many veterans in a difficult employment situation. In many cases, employers can be insensitive or even hostile to their veteran employees’ training schedules and wartime experiences.

Perhaps the hardest-hit military populations in recent years are the U.S. Reserve and National Guard members who have had to balance civilian employment with their military obligations, including combat deployments. Historically, Reserve and Guard troops were not regularly deployed to combat; but that changed significantly after 9/11.

WASHINGTON – Keith E. Sonderling was sworn in today as Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced this morning.  Sonderling was nominated by President Trump on July 17, 2019, re-nominated on March 16, 2020, and was confirmed on September 22, 2020 by a Senate vote of 52-41 to serve as Commissioner, for a term expiring July 1, 2024. Sonderling was also designated by President Trump to serve as Vice Chair of the Commission.
Sonderling joins Chair Janet Dhillon and Commissioners Charlotte A. Burrows and Victoria A. Lipnic on the presidentially appointed bipartisan Commission. One vacancy remains on the Commission.
"I am pleased to welcome Mr. Sonderling to this vitally important agency," said EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon.  "His vast experience with labor and employment issues, including his most recent accomplishments with the U.S. Department of Labor promise an ideally suited and valuable asset to the EEOC. I look forward to working with Keith, and my other colleagues on the Commission, to continue to promote equal opportunity for all."
Prior to his appointment to the EEOC, Sonderling served as the Deputy Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. He previously served as the Acting Administrator. The Wage and Hour Division administers and enforces Federal labor laws including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the labor provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  Prior to joining the administration in 2017, he practiced labor and employment law at the Florida-based Gunster Law Firm. He received his B.S., magna cum laude, from the University of Florida and his J.D., magna cum laude, from Nova Southeastern University.
"I am humbled and honored to serve as a Commissioner of the EEOC, and to be entrusted with a position where I can continue to work to prevent and remedy workplace discrimination and to advance the rights of the American workforce. I arrive

Credit: Ralph Alswang

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Credit: Ralph Alswang

Most recently, COVID-19 has resulted in even longer periods of activation and deployment for the Guard and Reservists, as they have been called up to test for coronavirus, administer vaccines, and distribute food at food banks across the country. In addition, these forces have been called up to quell civil unrest — all while continuing to respond to natural disasters including floods and wildfires.

Consequently, many employers are reluctant to hire or promote veteran employees who serve in the Guard or Reserves because of these significant obligations. Equally worse, many veterans have been fired because of these obligations. Disabled veterans also face employment discrimination when employers deliberately avoid hiring a veteran because of a real or perceived disability.

In a similar vein, there is also a growing perception that many veterans, especially combat veterans, are disabled for the very reason that they answered their nation’s call to duty. In many cases, veterans are perceived as psychologically “damaged” by their wartime experiences.

Oftentimes, this stereotyping is reflected and reinforced in popular culture whereby veterans in movies and television shows are regularly portrayed as unstable and broken. While some of these representations have helped make it easier to speak about the harsh realities of PTSD, they have also had the unintended effect of making it more difficult for veterans to get hired or promoted.

Fortunately, there are laws that protect veterans from such inexcusable discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) apply to veteran employees and those who employ them.

Under the USERRA, it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against servicemembers based on their military service. USERRA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Justice. The ADA, a law enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), prohibits an employer from treating an applicant or employee unfavorably in all aspects of employment because he or she has a disability, a history of having a disability, or because the employer regards him or her as having a disability.

Against the backdrop of rising veteran discrimination, in November of 2020, the EEOC provided new guidance related to the employment discrimination challenges that our nation’s veterans face. The EEOC’s guidance tackled tough issues such as what veterans can do if they feel that an employer has violated the ADA by not hiring them or providing a reasonable accommodation. But we must ensure that these laws and related guidance are vigorously enforced. Likewise, it is imperative that federal and state agencies engage in targeted outreach to ensure that veterans and employers know about these particular laws and how they apply.

As an EEOC commissioner, I have heard from combat veterans, Gold Star families, veterans’ groups, and others who have echoed these concerns. As the federal agency entrusted with ensuring that employment rights are protected, the EEOC should be the vanguard of this issue.

Many important questions have gone unanswered for far too long. What can we do to root out this odious and growing discrimination? Should federal employment discrimination laws relating to veterans be consolidated at one federal agency to ensure uniformity and to provide veterans with a “one-stop shop” in the event they face discrimination? Should the USERRA, passed in 1994, well before the post-9/11 employment challenges, be revisited and amended by Congress because of the new obstacles that veteran employees face? Should veterans be categorized as a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

We owe our nation’s veterans meaningful answers and steadfast support. This will be my mission at the EEOC.

Keith E. Sonderling is a commissioner on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The views here are the author’s own and should not be attributed to the EEOC or any other member of the Commission.