Justice Department Suit against MasTec Advanced Technologies For Violating Army Reserve Member’s Rights Highlights Expanding Employer Military Leave Risks & Liabilities

December 1, 2009

The Justice Department yesterday (November 30, 2009) filed suit against MasTec Advanced Technologies for allegedly willfully violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) by discriminating against Eugene C. Burress, a U.S. Army Reserve member, on the basis of his military service and by failing to offer Burress an appropriate reemployment position when he returned from military service. The 22nd USERRA lawsuit filed during 2009 by the Civil Rights Division on behalf of service members, the lawsuit highlights the growing liability risks that employers face for failing to properly comply with the evolving military leave mandates of USERRA and other applicable laws.

The MasTec Lawsuit

In a complaint filed in federal court in West Virginia, the Justice Department alleges that, in January 2008, Burress, then a field technician supervisor at MasTec’s Martinsburg, W.Va., office, was called to active duty in the U.S. Army, and that Burress notified his supervisor at MasTec of his upcoming military service. Prior to giving this notice of call to active duty, Burress’ supervisor had informed Burress that the site manager position at the office would be vacant soon and offered the position to Burress when it became available. Burress accepted this offer. While Burress was engaged in military service, however, MasTec promoted another MasTec employee to site manager. Burress filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, which investigated and attempted to resolve Burress’s USERRA complaint before referring it to the Justice Department. The Justice Department seeks back pay and other benefits Burress would have received had MasTec reemployed him as required by USERRA, as well as liquidated damages for MasTec’s willful violation of USERRA.

Evolving USERRA & Other Military Service Related Leave Requirements Make Compliance Review Advisable

USERRA prohibits an employer discriminating against an employee if the employee’s service or obligation for service in the uniformed services is a motivating factor in the employer’s action, unless the employer can prove that the action would have been taken in the absence of such service or obligation for service. USERRA also requires that service members on leave be offered the opportunity to continue group health plan coverage for certain periods while on leave.  Subject to certain limitations, USERRA also requires that employers offer reemployment promptly to service members who leave their civilian jobs to serve in the military in the same positions or in positions comparable to the positions they would have held had their employment not been interrupted by military service and be reinstated to all benefits and other rights of employment at that time.  Although Final Regulations construing these requirements were issued in 2005, many employers have yet to update their practices and policies to comply with the current USERRA mandates.  Furthermore, compliance with these mandates often creates various practical operational challenges even for U.S. businesses who fully understand these rules. 

In addition to USERRA, U.S. businesses also may need to update their policies and procedures to comply with new military leave related rights recently extended to service members and their families under amendments to the Family & Medical Leave Act of 1990 (FMLA) that took effect on January 28, 2008 under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (2008 NDA).  In addition to the otherwise applicable provisions of the FMLA, the 2008 NDA amended the FMLA to require under certain circumstances that covered employers grant FMLA Leave:

  • For up to 26 weeks FMLA Leave to a FMLA-covered employees who is the spouse, parent, child, or next of kin of a service member who incurred a serious injury or illness on active duty in the Armed Forces (Caregiver Leave); and
  • For up to 12 weeks of FMLA Leave to a FMLA-covered employee who has a spouse, parent, or child who is on or has been called to (or notified of an impending call or order to) active duty in the Armed Forces in response to an event that is a “qualifying exigency” (Military Exigency Leave).

Final regulations implementing the 2008 NDA FMLA mandates and other FMLA requirements took effect on January 16, 2009.

With these regulations barely dry, however, Congress this Fall further expanded these FMLA protections as part of amendments enacted by the National Defense Authorizations Act 2010 (2010 NDAA) that took effect October 29, 2009. Among other things, the 2010 NDAA:

  • Expanded FMLA Military Exigency Leave to apply to active duty service members deployed to a foreign country. Previously, Military Exigency Leave only applied to reservists.
  • Expanded Military Caregiver Leave to include care for a service member who aggravates a prior injury or illness during the course of his military service. Previously, aggravation of an illness or injury did not qualify for Military Caregiver Leave; and
  • For periods after the Secretary of Labor issues regulations defining the term “qualifying injury or illness” for a veteran, extended Military Caregiver Leave to include veterans who undergo medical treatment, recuperation or therapy for a qualifying injury or illness, as long as the service member was a member of the reserves or armed forces at any time during the five years before the veteran undergoes treatment. Military Caregiver Leave previously was not inapplicable to veterans.

Following these amendments, Congress continues to contemplate various other proposed expansions to these and other military service employment and other rights.

The recent changes to federal employment protections for military service members and their families and the increased emphasis on enforcement of these requirements make it advisable that employers review and revise their military leave, family leave and other employment policies,, employee benefit plans, and other policies and practices for compliance with current rule, while remaining alert for statutory or regulatory changes to these requirements.  Employers also should confirm that their employment posters and leave notification documentation and communications are up to date.

While reviewing current military service related leave policies and practices, employers also should confirm that they complying with recently revised Internal Revenue Service rules about reporting and withholding on differential pay paid to employees during military leave. This Spring, the Internal Revenue Service updated its guidance about these requirements.  Under Revenue Ruling 2009-11, employers that pay differential pay to employees absent on active duty military leave job must treat as taxable wages for income tax purposes, withhold income tax on and report as W-2 wages military duty differential pay.  However, Revenue Ruling 2009-11 states employers need not withhold or pay Federal Insurance Contributions Act (“FICA”) or Federal Unemployment Tax Act (“FUTA”) taxes on those payments.

If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending these or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer or another Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorney of your choice.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and a nationally recognized author and speaker, Ms. Stamer is experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, risk management  and internal controls matters. Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation, health and other employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment laws, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. She has counseled and represented employers on these and other workforce matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

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©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.