My name is Commander Elizabeth Watson. I am a drilling reservist assigned to Contingency Planning and Force Readiness at Sector Puget Sound. I appreciate the opportunity to appear as a guest blogger and share information about my experience with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
I received my commission in 1995 and was on active duty until 2002, with an 18 month break in service under the Care of Newborn Child Program. In early 2003, I began my civilian career and transitioned to the Coast Guard reserve. For over five years, I have served as an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for the State of Oregon. I specialize in employment cases, mostly work separations. I have heard over 4,000 cases during my tenure. As an ALJ, I have seen the impact of military service in the reserve component from the employer’s perspective as well as the servicemember’s. Additionally, as an officer that has served on both voluntary and involuntary active duty, I have a heightened awareness of the impact military service has on the employer/employee relationship.
When recalled under Title 14 in late May 2010, I took military leave from my ALJ job. As the respone continued, I saw my involvement in the response continuing indefinitely. I resigned my position. Between May 2010 and April 2011, I served on active duty here at the Sector, in D.C, and in New Orleans with few breaks in between. When the dust finally settled, I contacted the Chief ALJ of my agency to apply for re-employment. I involved the agency’s human resources staff from the beginning. The human resources personnel took over and guided me through the re-employment process. I began work again in May 2011 and I remain employed with the agency to this day.
As I was working with my agency’s staff, I was also consulting with staff from Employer Support of Guard and Reserve (ESGR). My contact was our guest speaker at the April 2011 reserve all hands. He provided me with information about Ombudsman services, to educate my employer about USERRA and resolve any issues that might arise between me and my employer.
Through my experience, I learned a few lessons:
1. Keep feeding the goodwill bank with the employer. This isn’t my line, but one I heard long ago from one of our senior leaders. Yes, technically my job is protected under USERRA. I don’t have to work with my employer, I suppose. But I try to. I have left them on a moment’s notice twice now to serve on active duty. If I can give them notice and work with them on annual training dates and drill dates, I do it. They have been good to me and I feel I owe them this courtesy.
2. Don’t quit. I learned this from my ESGR contact. I should have notified my employer I was going on active duty orders. Instead, I quit while I was on approved military leave. What was I thinking?
3. Keep Human Resources in the loop. Not all managers are experts in USERRA. I believe that part of the reason my re-employment with the state went as smoothly as it did was because of early involvement by our human resources staff. Don’t assume your manager knows USERRA.
4. Educate yourself now. While going through the re-employment process, I spent much time researching whether I had to provide orders to the employer, how much notice I had to provide prior to deployment in order to protect my employment rights, what services were available through ESGR, etc. As part of my readiness plan, I could have had that information up front. One less thing to worry about when faced with a short notice deployment.
An ESGR representative briefs us every year at the reserve all hands. Listen. Engage them now, before a deployment, to make sure you are fully informed of your rights and the resources available to both you and the employer as you move through a deployment process.
CDR Elizabeth Watson