Happy Independence Day! To celebrate our country’s 241st birthday, I did a little searching for cases where the Fourth of July played a role in employment law decisions. I found two cases (one old and one new) which were interesting. Both cases involve the rights of servicemen.
Eager v. Magma Copper Co., 88 S.Ct. 503 (1967), required the United States Supreme Court to interpret the Universal Military Training and Service Act (“UMTSA”). The UMTSA was a predecessor statute to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”). Stephan Eagar worked for Magma Copper Company from March 12, 1958 until March 6, 1959 — when he left to enter military service. He returned to work immediately after his service on May 2, 1962. He sued when Magma Copper did not pay him for vacation pay for Memorial Day and Independence Day in 1962. Magma Copper’s Collective Bargaining Agreement only permitted vacation pay for those holidays if the employee was on the payroll three straight months prior to the holidays. Because Eagar was in military service during the three months prior to Memorial Day and Independence Day, Magma Copper contended that he was not entitled to vacation pay. The Supreme Court found that Eager was entitled to be paid because the UMTSA required that he be treated as if his had kept his position continuously during his stint in the Army. USERRA contains substantially similar provisions. So, Eager provides a valuable lesson to employers today: the terms of a collective bargaining agreement cannot override an employee’s rights under USERRA.
Ashman v. Winnebago County Sheriff’s Dept, No 11 C 50388, 2015 WL 641784 (N.D. Ill Feb. 13, 2015) involved a direct interpretation of USERRA rights. Matthew Ashman was employed as a corrections officer by the Winnebago County Jail, and he was also a member of the Illinois National Guard. He was called to duty with the National Guard for the period of June 30, 2008 to July 11, 2008, and he reported for duty after notifying his employer. Mr. Ashman’s unit commander granted leave for all members for the period of July 4 to July 7 to celebrate the Independence Day holiday. But, while on leave, unit members were subject to recall. Retroactively, in an effort to avoid paying unit members for the holiday, the Department of Military Affairs issued orders stating that Ashman only was ordered to service for June 30 to July 3 and July 8 to July 11. When Ashman’s supervisor received those revised orders, Ashman was terminated for missing an assigned work shift on July 7, 2008. After a thorough analysis, Judge Frederick J. Kapala concluded that Mr. Ashman was subjected to discrimination based upon his military service, and ruled in his favor.
The best lesson that can be learned from Eagar and Ashman is to proceed cautiously when making employment decisions that are related in any manner to an employee’s military service. USERRA provides substantial rights to employees who also serve our country. As we celebrate Independence Day, we should be thankful for the service of members of the U.S. Military, and also be mindful of their rights.