Sometimes Bruce Grove says he wishes he were back fighting for the Texas Army National Guard in Iraq rather than dealing with his problem at home in Lewisville, Texas.
After three tours of duty during two wars in Iraq, Grove, 46, wanted to return to his life as on-site property manager for a self-storage facility. His wife ran the operation while he was away.
But on Sept. 11, 2008 — “of all days,” Grove says — his wife received a letter that he had been terminated. The facility’s owner, The Assured Group, had sold the Lewisville property to another company.
Grove had to take a quick leave from training in Georgia to rush home and move his wife and son into an apartment. When he returned from Iraq a year later, he asked his company for a similar job.
The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act requires companies to rehire veterans who worked for them before deployment. So Grove believed that he had a strong argument. The law says the new job must be equal in pay, seniority and benefits. (Here is an easy-to-read government guide about the law.)
As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, the company told him no. In a lengthy interview with Watchdog Nation, Blair Valk, operations director and daughter of company founder Don Valk, detailed how she handled Grove’s complaint.
“Bruce kept saying: ‘I’m coming back. What do you have available?’
“I said: ‘Honestly, we don’t have anything. Your job doesn’t exist anymore.’ We can’t leave something open for 30 or 60 days. If we have a vacancy, we have to fill it.”
She researched the Reemployment Rights Act.
“I’m educating myself. I just called the agency directly protecting him and asked, ‘Please help me understand what I’m supposed to do.'”
She said she talked to several officials but didn’t note who they were.
“I’m doing it all myself. I didn’t use an attorney. We’re a family-owned company. I used the Internet, called the agencies and spoke to their help lines.
“They all determined the same thing: ‘You don’t have any obligation. … I feel very secure it’s not a violation.”
Under law, veterans can complain to the Labor Department, which can mediate the dispute. After that, veterans can take the case to federal court and get government representation for free. Or veterans can sue on their own.
If the matter turns into a lawsuit, the company would likely use one part of the law as its defense. “Reemployment of a person is excused if an employer’s circumstances have changed so that reemployment of the person would be impossible or unreasonable,” a government summary of the law says. “A reduction-in-force that would have included the person would be an example.”
Grove says that The Assured Group owns other self-storage properties in North Texas and that a comparable job could be found. The company also owns business parks and has a realty division, according to its website.
“The company still has to provide me a job — maybe not the same job but picking weeds or cleaning bathrooms at the same salary and seniority that I had.”
In a recommendation letter Grove provided to me, a company official writes that he was a model employee. It also calls him “a tremendous asset,” “highly-motivated” and “always warm and cheerful.”
Grove has hired a law firm owned by federal employment lawyer Patrick McLain. McLain said the company official I interviewed erred by doing her own research and not seeking legal advice.
“That’s how people get in trouble,” he said. The company’s problem, he said, is that it owns other facilities and that Grove could have been hired elsewhere.
Garnet Murphey of Southlake alerted The Watchdog to Grove’s struggle. The daughter of a World War II prisoner of war, she has a keen interest in veterans issues.
“Is this the way we should treat the heroes that protect us?” she asks.
“He’s been having a hard time. He thought he had a job. He’s been struggling ever since. He’s depressed, but he doesn’t make it obvious. He’s a trouper.”
Grove says he is speaking out because he wants to be “the frontman to bring this a little more public awareness. I’ve been approached by a lot of soldiers with the same problem. We’re supposed to suck it up and move forward. I was wronged here. I’m not going to lay down on this.”
Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber
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