Veterans often have difficulties getting hired, in part due to widespread stereotypes and biases against them. Even when veterans get past that first stage and are hired (congrats!), they unfortunately still often have challenges to deal with in the workplace. They might find that they do not love the new job. Maybe their coworkers are cruel, scorning the military, or perhaps the boss is treating them differently than everyone else because of their status as a veteran. If you are a veteran and that sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. Luckily, veteran status is a protected class in California and employers are not allowed to discriminate based on that in the same way they cannot discriminate based on traits like gender, disability, or race. In fact, veterans have additional safeguards under federal and state law, as well, such as the right to reemployment after service with job security for a year for those who meet eligibility criteria. Although legal protections exist, employers and even coworkers can still violate your rights. This article will give a few examples of challenges veterans might face at work to help illustrate what to look out for in the workplace. If your rights are violated, an employment attorney can help you figure out what you can do about it.
1. Harassment from coworkers
One thing that most people can agree on is that doing a job becomes much more difficult when coworkers create an unwelcoming, even hostile, work environment. No one wants to go to work if they cannot count on being respected by their colleagues and boss. Because of negative stereotypes and personal biases, oftentimes people can act very poorly towards veterans, even if they do work with them. Harassment, though, is a form of illegal discrimination and in California, both employers and coworkers can be held liable for engaging in it (or, as an employer, permitting it). To get a sense of what harassment against a veteran could look like, let’s imagine the following:
Nick served in the Marine Corps for four years. When he returned, he was reinstated to his former position as a factory worker, but was let go after a year. After this, he spent a few months searching for a job before finding a place that hired him. His new job is similar to his old one, but he finds himself wishing he could go back to his old job because of his new coworkers. For the first few months at this job, Nick’s coworkers make him the butt of their jokes constantly, even though after the first few weeks, he told them to knock it off. With clear disdain, they make fun of things like his “military posture” and denigrate his morals, saying things like that he has “the blood of a killer.” Nick’s focus is constantly interrupted by anxiety over what he feels is bullying and he comes to detest going to work. Even his blood pressure has increased since starting this job. Eventually, he files a complaint with human resources.
Nick is in what appears to be a very hostile work environment due to the harassment by his coworkers. If nothing is resolved after he notifies the company about the discriminatory harassment, Nick could have a legal claim against his employer for permitting discrimination in the workplace. Note that harassment is not always so obvious; it can also come, for instance, in the form of rumors or inappropriate but not ill-intentioned comments. Regardless of how the harassment manifests, it can be very damaging to the victims and employers must protect their veteran employees from the suffering it can cause.
2. Denial of time off for medical leave
Veterans often suffer from serious health conditions related to their military service. Common conditions include amyloidosis, traumatic brain injury, respiratory cancers, musculoskeletal ailments, and depression. Federally, the Family and Medical Leave Act offers eligible employees under covered employers up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for a few different purposes, one of which is to deal with serious health conditions. Although this leave is generally unpaid, employees can use accrued paid leave during FMLA leave. This means that for veterans who have accrued paid leave from their civilian job during their military service (under a different federal law), they may be able to get paid time off for a serious health condition upon returning. Let’s look at an example of how a veteran might illegally be denied time off for a serious medical condition:
Tiana returned from military service two years ago. For a year and a half, she has been working full-time at the same big company. She has been diagnosed with clinical depression, which she is taking antidepressants for. Despite this treatment, she begins to notice that, as happened before she was on medication and at this job, she is finding it impossible to sleep, is irritable all the time, and no longer finds interest in her work or hobbies. When she realizes these symptoms of depression are severely interfering with her life and her job, she asks her psychiatrist if her medication might not be working as it should. Tiana is told that she can switch her antidepressants if she would like to, but recommends that regardless of whether or not she wants to take antidepressants, Tiana should take time off from work to do some inpatient therapy. When Tiana requests this time off from work, giving a short but sufficient explanation of why along with her doctor’s note to her employer, she is told that she doesn’t need time off; she just needs to spend more time in the sun.
Tiana’s employer, assuming she is subject to the FMLA, is breaking the law by denying Tiana time off to treat her serious health condition. There is a pervasive stigma against mental health disorders, but they are as debilitating as physical disorders, oftentimes more so, and they are covered by the FMLA. Veterans have increased rates of multiple serious health conditions compared to the general population, so it is important that their rights to treatment and healing time are not violated. Moreover, discriminating against an employee, veteran or not, based on a physical or mental health condition is illegal.
Serving in the military is anything but a cakewalk. It involves an often highly dangerous job, time away from family, and for many returning veterans, it leads to workplace discrimination and denial of rights that should be afforded to them. With all that veterans have sacrificed for the country, it is well within their rights to speak out against unlawful behavior. If you are a veteran facing challenges like the ones above or you believe your rights have been violated in another way, contact an employment attorney. You deserve respect and fair treatment at work, and an employment attorney can help you get what you are entitled to if you are denied that.