During the past legislative session, the legislature passed several significant changes to the Minnesota Veteran’s Preference Act, including reducing the 60 day notice period to 30 days, eliminating the three-person panel and replacing it with a single arbitrator, providing for the termination of a Veteran during probation without the protection of a Veteran’s hearing, and providing for the possibility the employer may be responsible for a discharged Veteran’s reasonable attorneys fees.

Minn. Stat. § 197.455 now allows, counties, cities, towns, school districts and other municipalities to require a veteran to complete an initial hiring probation period.  After the initial probation period is completed, a veteran may not be removed from a position except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing.

The legislature also made changes to Minn. Stat. § 197.46.  After a veteran receives notice of the government’s intent to discharge him/her from employment, the veteran now has only 30 days to request a hearing, instead of the previously allowed 60 days.  The failure of the veteran to request a hearing within 30 days constitutes a waiver of the right to a hearing and all other legal remedies for reinstatement.  Additionally, the option to have the hearing before a “three-person panel” has now been changed to “an arbitrator.” In cases where the hearing will be before an arbitrator, the employer is to request a list of seven possible arbitrators from the Bureau of Mediation Services.  The legislature also stated the employer is required to strike first from the list of seven arbitrators, giving the Veteran the final selection.

The last significant change involves the costs associated with the hearing.  The statute will now read, “For disputes heard by a civil service board, commission or merit system authority, or an arbitrator, the governmental subdivisions shall bear all costs associated with the hearing, but not including attorney fees for attorneys representing the veteran.  If the veteran prevails in a dispute heard by a civil service board, commission or merit system authority, or an arbitrator and the hearing reverses the level of the alleged incompetency or misconduct requiring discharge, the governmental subdivision shall pay the veteran’s reasonable attorney fees.”

The most significant change for employers is the exposure to liability for the Veteran’s reasonable attorney’s fees in the event a discharge is reversed.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice settled the federal lawsuit it filed on behalf of Navy veteran Michael Schutz against the City of Truman for failing to properly reemploy him in a full-time position, and then moving to terminate him for misconduct. Many employers aren’t familiar with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of service in the armed forces. It also requires, with a few exceptions, employers to return employees to a position with equal seniority, pay, and benefits upon their return from service.

Police Officer Schutz was hired full-time by the City of Truman in 2005. After he returned from his deployment to Kuwait, he was offered part-time hours. Subsequently he was accused of and terminated for misconduct, after he began pursuing his federal case. The City of Truman must pay Officer Schutz’s legal fees, the value of unpaid benefits, provide him with 40 additional hours of vacation time for 2012 and 2013, and deposit the value of his lost nonwage income into his PERA account. The employer must also remove references to his proposed termination from all personnel files.

Employers who employ service members need to be aware of USERRA. The U.S. Department of Labor offers USERRA 101 for an on-line introduction to the rules and regulations. I encourage all Employers to take advantage of this free course.

Memorial weekend is here, signaling the official start of summer. We celebrate all those who have served in the military and made sacrifices for our country. I bought my “Buddy Poppy” on the way out of the grocery store this week, and am proudly wearing it attached to the outside of my purse. Public employers should take note of several recent legislative changes affecting Veterans in the workplace.

Minnesota’s point-preference requirement favoring Veteran’s in the hiring process was expanded by the Legislature this session. Previously public employers were required to award five points to the application of a nondisabled Veteran, and ten points to the application of a disabled Veteran. The points have been increased effective April 19, 2012. Nondisabled Veterans are now to be awarded ten points, and disabled Veteran’s are to be awarded fifteen points.

The Legislature also amended Minn. Stat. 197.46 concerning the discharge or demotion of a Veteran. Public employers must provide sixty days notice to a Veteran of their right to request a hearing before a civil service board, or in the event there is no civil service board, a hearing before a three judge ad-hoc panel. The three judge panel is comprised of one member selected by the public employer, one by the employee, and one mutually selected by the parties.

Effective August 1, 2012, the Veteran must also be advised to select their representative for the three judge ad hoc panel during the sixty (60) days period of appeal, or forfeit their right to a “hearing and all other legal remedies available for reinstatement of the Veteran’s employment.” Public employers should revise their discharge and demotion notices to Veteran’s accordingly. The new change will definitely help to avoid any delays in scheduling a hearing in the event of a Veteran’s appeal.

One other minor change to the law clarifies that both the public employer and the Veteran have fifteen days to appeal a Veteran’s decision to the district court. This clarification was a result of a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision concerning the question of timelines for appeals of a city.

Enjoy a picnic or barbecue this long weekend. Just remember we are celebrating our military, in memory of their service and sacrifice.