Justice Department Reaches Settlement with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Inc. to Enforce the Rights of United States Army National Guard Member
(STL.News) The Department of Justice announced that it has reached a settlement agreement resolving allegations that the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Inc. (WREC) terminated U.S. Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Garrett Woodard when he returned from military service in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA).
“We greatly value and respect the contributions of all our service members and are committed to challenging any attempts to discriminate against them in their efforts to fulfill their military duties,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division. “It is an honor to fight for the rights of those serving in the Armed Forces, including the Army National Guard, so that they may continue to fight for and protect our freedom without fear of losing their employment.”
“Members of the U.S. Army National Guard make tremendous sacrifices, including spending significant time away from their families and jobs,” said U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg for the Middle District of Florida. “Their call to active duty and fulfillment of their military obligations should never be detrimental to their jobs. Our office, in partnership with the Civil Rights Division, remains committed to protecting the employment rights of our service members.”
SSG Woodard has served in the Florida Army National Guard with distinction for over 21 years and is currently attached to the 53rd Support Battalion out of Bartow, Florida. During his service, he has been called up to active duty on multiple occasions, including serving in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006 and Iraq in 2010 and 2011 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. From January 2018 to October 2020, he was also employed by WREC in their apprentice lineman program to become a journeyman where he was consistently rated as an excellent employee. In the summer of 2020, SSG Woodard was deployed to military service for several months with his unit as part of Florida’s emergency mobilization to assist the state in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the extended nature of the emergency, his military leave was extended for several months, through Oct. 26, 2020. He reported back to WREC immediately at the end of his deployment but was terminated by WREC on the day he reported back to work. Woodard filed a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) alleging that WREC terminated him on the basis of his military service obligations in violation of USERRA. VETS investigated this matter and referred it to the Department of Justice after attempts at resolution failed.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, WREC has agreed to pay Woodard back pay and other damages in the amount of $80,000. The settlement agreement further requires WREC to comply with all of the provisions of USERRA to prevent any further incidents of discrimination, retaliation, or interference with a servicemember’s rights under USERRA from occurring in the future
USERRA protects the rights of uniformed servicemembers to retain their civilian employment following absences due to military service obligations and provides that servicemembers shall not be discriminated against because of their military obligations. The Justice Department gives high priority to the enforcement of servicemembers’ rights under USERRA.
This matter was handled by Deputy Civil Chief Yohance Pettis of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, along with Senior Trial Attorney Brian McEntire of the Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section.