Unemployment has long been a problem for returning vets, but the Washington Post now reports a troubling fact: Each year, more than 1,000 returning troops say they have lost jobs or been penalized due to their service, despite the fact that such treatment is against the law under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). And the employer most often at fault is allegedly the federal government. Of the 1,548 complaints filed in fiscal 2011, more than 18% involved federal agencies. "On the one hand, the government asked me to serve in Iraq," says a retired reservist who was fired from his contractor job with US Customs and Border Patrol after returning from service. "On the other hand, another branch of government was not willing to protect my rights after serving."
USERRA particularly calls on the federal government to act as "a model employer" for service members, yet critics say the government has rescinded job offers if service members could not get released from active duty quickly, fired service members after absences related to their military duties, or required hired reservists to leave military service. Challenging USERRA violations is difficult, and even if the government is found to be in violation, all it must do is pay back wages—it is not subject to any other penalties, as private employers are. The Justice Department also often declines to pursue cases, meaning "the whole burden is put on the serving soldier to defend your case," says the fired Customs contractor. Federal officials do acknowledge the problem, and say efforts are under way to improve compliance. (Read more service members stories.)