Similar to people in nearly every institution these days, military veterans have become politicized. Whether addressing issues concerning the national anthem at sporting events or presidential condolence calls to families of deceased veterans, volatile emotional issues are arising with increasing regularity.
But these controversies should recede, for a moment at least, as Minnesotans join the rest of the nation in honoring military veterans on Veterans Day (formerly known as Armistice Day), Saturday, Nov. 11 — which this year commemorates the 99th anniversary of the end of World War I. Many observances and ceremonial events at various cemeteries, including venerable Fort Snelling in Bloomington and other burial sites around the state, will take place Friday.
Minnesota also honors those who have served in the military by giving them extended rights in the workplace, including some special legislation that expands job opportunities not only for veterans, but some of their spouses, as well.
Laws aimed at giving veterans more workplace-related rights date to the 19th century in Minnesota, including a measure that gives past military members more job security than nonveterans in public-sector positions. Other longstanding laws give veterans in Minnesota, and some of their spouses, special rights in the workplace.
Private enterprise extension
The most recent addition to the panoply of rights accorded Minnesota veterans in the workplace, enacted five years ago, extends their rights from government jobs to the private enterprise. Under the law, private-sector businesses are authorized, but not compelled, to grant “preference” in hiring and promoting to veterans. This also applies to spouses of veterans who are permanently and totally disabled as a result of service-related injuries and to surviving spouses of deceased vets.
The unusual measure does not specify what types of preference may be accorded, how it may be implemented, or any other details. Rather, it simply permits employers to give favorable treatment to veterans, and, if veterans are disabled or deceased, to their spouses.
Pre-existing law in Minnesota prohibits discrimination against individuals because of their military status. The new statute, conversely, allows them to be given preferential treatment, and to dispel any doubt expressly states that granting such favoritism does not constitute a violation of any state or local anti-discrimination laws.
The exemption, however, does not give employers an assured safe harbor from litigation. A nonveteran might still find some way to assert discrimination because of preferential treatment given to veterans. Further, veterans themselves may raise various charges that they are being treated less favorably than other veterans with different or longer military service records.
These potential disputes may be avoided if company management adopts written policies for according preference to veterans in hiring or promotion and implements them uniformly. Failure to do so could leave businesses vulnerable to charges of impropriety in positioning veterans more favorably than nonveterans or even in preferring some veterans over others.
The private-sector preference permitted by the Minnesota law complements other favorable considerations that veterans are entitled to in the workplaces in this state. One measure allows them and their spouses preferential treatment in hiring in the public sector. If competitive examinations are given for governmental unit positions, veterans and surviving spouses of veterans who are deceased are required to be given 10 additional points on a 100-point scale, a 10 percent advantage over nonveterans, while disabled veterans may receive up to 15 points.
Preferential treatment for veterans is not limited to hiring and promotion. The state’s Veteran’s Preference Act, on the books since 1907, enables those who have been honorably discharged after at least six months of military service to challenge any disciplinary action, including discharges, in most public-sector jobs by requiring their employers to prove that the discipline, including many types of demotions, is attributable to “incompetency or misconduct” of the employee. This is a high standard that gives veterans much more job security and ability to successfully challenge disciplinary actions, including termination, than their colleagues, who generally work on at “at will” basis, and can be disciplined, demoted, and even discharged for any reason, in the whim of management, without proof of poor performance or any other misbehavior.
The Preference Act primarily covers most employees of municipal, county, school districts, and other local braches of government, but does not cover most supervisors as well as any employees of the University of Minnesota or the state.
Despite these exclusions, the law is a potent one. Not only does it limit disciplinary actions, especially terminations, of veterans, but it also allows them to remain on the payroll during the time they are contesting any discharge, which may take many months or longer.
Another law, only applicable to public sector employees, grants current military members, those in the National Guard, up to 15 days of paid leave of absence each year to participate in military drills or training exercises.
Side by side with federal laws
These Minnesota measures exist side by side with some significant workplace protection laws at the federal level.
The most notable is the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Act, commonly known as USEERA, which includes a broad prohibition of retaliation against an individual because of past, current, or prospective military service. It is most often invoked when those in the military service are denied jobs, or given inferior positions, upon returning from active duty to their former places of employment.
Federal laws dating back to the Civil War also provide various forms of preferential hiring and job retention rights in the federal workforce for most veterans, including the disabled.
Some may view these preferential laws as unfair to those who are not veterans. Those who have worn the uniform may feel that they are entitled to even more advantages in the workplace. But they are definitely armed with a set of laws that can protect and preserve, and promote their rights in the workplace.
These various measure constitute a means of saying, in a way most appropriate at this time of the year: “Thank you for your service.”
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities employment law attorney and President of Beyond The Yellow Ribbon Quad Communities (Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal, and New Hope).
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