As we approach Memorial Day and honor veterans for their service to the US military, it is important for an employer to recognize the discrimination and unfair treatment many veterans still face in the workplace today. In fact, just recently, a manufacturing company paid $75,000 to settle a disability discrimination and harassment lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The veteran claimed he was harassed and called a “psycho” by his supervisors and coworkers because of his condition.
Additionally, the EEOC recently sued a trucking company alleging that it failed to accommodate, refused to hire and retaliated against a veteran because he used a service dog to help control anxiety and to wake him from nightmares caused by PTSD.
So what can an employer do to make its workplace more veteran friendly and avoid these types of situations? The following are some affirmative steps an employer can take to make its workplace fairer towards veterans and provide them with increased professional opportunities to level the playing field.
1. Enforce EEO Laws With Respect to Veterans
It is essential for an employer to impress upon its workforce that discrimination, harassment and retaliation against veterans and members of the military will not be tolerated. This means an employer should include veterans and members of the military as a protected class in their employment policies and employee handbook and provide supervisors and employees with training on the issue.
There has also been recent movement in state and local jurisdictions regarding veteran and military-related protections. For example, New York City and New Jersey recently expanded antidiscrimination protections for veterans and military members.
Employers should also note that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and its state counterparts provide that an employer may not discriminate against individuals based on their military obligations. These laws require employers to provide job protection and reinstatement rights if individuals leave their civilian jobs, voluntarily or involuntarily, to serve in the uniformed services, the reserve forces or in a state’s National Guard.
If faced with a discrimination complaint concerning a veteran, an employer should carefully document it and follow up with an investigation and interim and disciplinary measures if needed. Further, if an employer needs to take adverse action against a veteran, the employer should be careful to document this, making sure that they are not engaging in unlawful discrimination.
2. Aim to Hire More Veterans
An employer should aim to hire more veterans and recognize the unique skills, talent, dedication and experience that they may bring to the workforce. Targeting outreach to veteran organizations may assist in this process.
Additionally, an employer should take note of veterans’ preference laws that permit employers to voluntarily provide preferences to otherwise qualified veterans and at times, their spouses, when it comes to hiring, promotions and sometimes reductions in force without violating EEO laws. In recent years, veterans’ preference laws have been enacted in a number of states, and an employer should check to see if one is in effect in the jurisdictions it operates in.
An employer should also note that under the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA), certain federal contractors and subcontractors are required to take positive actions to hire and promote veterans. Covered employers must report their hiring efforts and establish an affirmative action plan that addresses veteran employment and provides priority to covered veterans.
3. Develop Employee Resource Groups for Veterans
In order to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace where veterans and military members feel valued and respected, an employer should consider creating employee resource or affinity groups geared toward veterans. This is a good way to demonstrate that the employer actively supports veterans and military members and is willing to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for them.
Veterans’ employee resource groups can also make onboarding easier and provide veterans with assistance and resources when transitioning back into civilian life. Such resource groups also may improve morale and camaraderie between and among veterans by providing them with the opportunity to network and share similar issues and experiences.
4. Provide Veterans with Accommodations
Many veterans may suffer from physical and mental disabilities arising out of their military service such as missing limbs, spinal cord injuries, hearing loss and PTSD. Such individuals are often protected by disability discrimination laws and entitled to reasonable accommodations such as:
- Physical changes to the workplace (e.g., to accommodate a wheelchair);
- Modified equipment/devices and technology (e.g., to accommodate blindness);
- Modified or part-time work schedules;
- Use of a guide dog or service dog;
- A job coach or assistant; or
- Leave for treatment, recuperation or training.
If a veteran requests an accommodation, the employer should make a good faith effort to attempt to fulfill the request and engage in the interactive process with the employee, discussing the nature and need for the accommodation. An employer should make every effort to provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so would create an undue hardship given:
- The nature and cost of the accommodation;
- The overall financial resources of the employer;
- The overall size of the employer;
- The impact on other employees; and
- The composition/structure of the employer’s workforce.
An undue hardship analysis should be made on a case-by-case basis and should be clearly documented.
5. Grant Leave Requests
During the course of employment, veterans or their spouses or significant others may need time off for various reasons including to serve in the US military, to attend doctor’s appointments or celebrate Veterans Day. An employer should recognize that veterans and their spouses or significant others may be entitled to take leave and time off under various laws, including, but not limited to:
- The family military leave provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); and
- State laws providing veterans with time off for Veterans Day.
- It is important for an employer to track veterans’ requests for time off and maintain records regarding whether the request was granted or denied. If an employer denies a request, it should ensure that the denial was based on legitimate nondiscriminatory business reasons.