Page 2 of 2 Previous
Michael Schutz came back to Truman, Minn., after a deployment to Kuwait with the Navy, expecting to return to his full-time job as a police officer. Instead, he was offered part-time hours. When Schutz, who had been hired full time in 2005, began pursuing his case under a federal law protecting returning service members, the city accused him of misconduct, claiming he falsified one hour and 15 minutes on his time card, a discrepancy that amounted to about $25 in pay. They demanded he surrender his badge, his radio and his keys.
In court papers, the city said Schutz's position was reduced because of impending state aid cuts while he was deployed and that, because of the cuts, he was retained at his regular pay rate but with fewer hours.
"I felt I was ambushed," Schutz said Thursday. "It's unfortunate that individuals like myself, and there are many of them out there ... you come back to something like this. In the back of my mind, I knew they were going to file a complaint against me. I wasn't out for blood; I just wanted my job."
On Thursday, Schutz's claim, which had been taken up by the U.S. Department of Justice in a lawsuit, was settled in his favor, and he'll get his full-time job back. According to a consent decree filed in federal court, the city violated Schutz's rights by failing to properly reemploy him and by moving to terminate his job. Truman now must pay him $11,211, the value of unpaid benefits, and provide him with 40 additional hours of vacation time for 2012 and 2013. In addition, it must pay his legal fees, deposit the value of his lost nonwage income into his PERA account and remove references to his proposed termination from all personnel files.
Schutz, 36, said his main objective all along was to clear his name and get back what was owed to him.
"I wasn't out for money; I wasn't out for fame," he said, noting that the lawsuit was filed on his behalf by the Justice Department. "The biggest part of why I had to take care of this was because I didn't want anyone to think I had even an inkling of being crooked."
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, is the key law protecting members of the National Guard and Reserves when they return to their civilian jobs. It makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a worker because he or she has served in the armed forces. With a few exceptions, it requires employers to restore seniority, benefits and pay to soldiers when they come back to work.
As more Guard and Reserve troops move back into civilian life, the federal law is expected to play a more important role, not only for members of the military who may have lost their jobs while serving but also for those who may have returned to fewer hours or lesser positions.
Recently, the U.S. Senate passed a bill sponsored by Minnesota First District Rep. Tim Walz that would require the federal Transportation Security Administration to adhere to USERRA regulations. Since its inception after 9/11, the agency has contended it should be exempt from being forced to comply.
And Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill into law this year that would allow members of the military who are employees of the state to sue for violations of the law. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the measure passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. Previously, state employees were prohibited from suing under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects a state from being sued under some laws, including USERRA.
The issue arose after one man began a fight to change the law. Marty Breaker taught business classes at Bemidji State University but was called to active duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army, where he was a colonel who guarded Saddam Hussein during one of his trials. When he came home after nearly three years of active duty, Breaker found his old teaching job had been eliminated and the new post he was offered was in a different city and for less pay. When he tried to sue under USERRA, he discovered that the state had immunity.
Earlier this year, the Star Tribune looked at 10 years of Minnesota USERRA cases and found that the federal law often produces disappointing results. Cases are handled at the local level by an all-volunteer crew that does double duty handing out awards to businesses that treat their returning employees well. In Minnesota, if a service member files a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, the claim will be dismissed as having "no merit" more often than it will be settled or granted. Even finding out who the offending employers are is kept secret by federal privacy statutes.
Of the 344 Minnesota claims handled by the department since 2000, according to a Star Tribune analysis, 107 cases, or 31 percent, were found to have no merit, the highest number of any category of claim. The department granted or settled 81 claims, while 79 were withdrawn.
Schutz said he wants to move on.
"You can't dwell on it," he said. "Unnecessary stress is bad for you. I wake up in the morning and it's not 'poor me.' It happened. I want to move on with my life."
Staff writer Maria Elena Baca contributed to this report. Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434