DURHAM, N.C. —- Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson was serving overseas with U.S. special forces when he received a letter from his civilian employer, the U.S. Postal Service.
In the 2000 notice, the agency informed him that he was being fired from his job as a postal clerk in Florida for taking too much time off to serve with the National Guard.
“I thought it was a joke,” Erickson said this week from Ft. Bragg, N.C., where he serves with the Army’s Special Operations Command.
But when he called the Postal Service, he was told that he had been terminated for taking “excessive military leave.”
Last week, after a seven-year legal battle, Erickson was awarded reinstatement and back pay. A federal board denied a Postal Service appeal and ordered the agency to restore his job and give him 14 years of back pay and other benefits that could total about $2 million.
“I answered the call of duty and served my country — and I got fired for it,” said Erickson, who has been awarded medals for valor and a Purple Heart.
Thousands of veterans have filed complaints or lawsuits against their employers after losing their civilian jobs while in the military. Legal experts say that more claims are likely as the war in Afghanistan winds down and more Reserve and National Guard soldiers return to full-time civilian life.
Erickson’s case is unusual because the Postal Service, an independent agency of the U.S. government, continued to fight even after several court rulings in his favor. Even now, it refuses to say whether it will comply — or continue to appeal.
Erickson accused the agency of violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which is designed to protect civilian jobs of service members who are called to military duty.
His lawyer, Matthew Estes, said the case should not have dragged on because the law is clear on service members’ rights to keep their civilian jobs.
“We thought it was a relatively simple issue,” Estes said. He said he hoped the decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board in Washington “helps make sure employers think twice before firing someone who’s on military duty.”
The merit board rules on disputed federal personnel actions. In Erickson vs. U.S. Postal Service, it rejected the Postal Service’s contentions that Erickson had abandoned his job by being away for so long, and that he did not ask for his job back in time. The law limits the length of time soldiers can be away from work and sets reinstatement deadlines.
The Postal Service must reinstate Erickson at a post office in Ft. Myers, Fla., by Jan. 20, Estes said. The agency has 60 days to begin paying compensation, though Estes said some of the compensation must still be litigated.
Darlene Casey, a Postal Service official, said the agency had no comment because “litigation is ongoing and appeals are possible.”
Samuel F. Wright, director of the Service Members Law Center, who helped draft the employment and reemployment law in 1994, estimated that several hundred lawsuits are filed annually by service members against employers who dismiss them. He said thousands more Guard and Reserve members are dismissed but never file suit; he received 4,500 calls last year complaining of jobs lost while serving.
For Erickson, 50, the apparent end of the long case is a relief not just for him, but for his wife and three daughters, who have paid a steep price because of his overseas deployments, he said.
Erickson began working at the post office in 1988 after serving in the military. He joined the Guard in 1990, he said, because “I still wanted to serve my country.”
He said he was “a great employee” who never missed work. But soon he was being called away to serve overseas; he declined to say where, citing operational security.
After the Postal Service fired him, he said, he wasn’t eligible for another government job. He decided to go on active duty, where he remains today. But he would have preferred to stay at the post office, a steady job with regular hours five miles from his home, he said.
He’s not inclined to return to his old job, however. “If you fought someone for 14 years, would you go back?” Erickson asked. “Are they going to fire me for something else and start another 14-year fight?”
Michael Macomber, a lawyer at Tully Rinckey, which handled Erickson’s case and specializes in federal employment law, said the firm had handled complaints from many veterans who said they were wrongly terminated by federal employers. Soldiers with civilian jobs at the Defense Department, all the military services and such federal agencies as the Departments of Energy, and Health and Human Services have filed suits, Macomber said.
The employment and reemployment act is intended “to minimize the disruption to the lives of persons performing service in the uniformed services ... by providing for the prompt reemployment ... upon completion of such service.” The federal government, the law says, “should be a model employer.”
Erickson said he was shocked by his dismissal because he had assumed the Postal Service “would naturally support veterans.” Even when he received his dismissal letter, he said, he found irony in the fact that the Postal Service delivered the notice three months late — long after the agency’s deadline for his reply.
He said he hoped his case would make it easier for other veterans to reclaim their civilian jobs.
“I fought this fight not just for me, but for a lot of other veterans who’ve been fired while serving their country,” he said.