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Susan Park: Veterans Day raises issues about employers’ obligations

Federal holidays such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day help us remember and honor the commitment and sacrifice of those who have served our country. If you are an employer, these holidays are also good reminders of your company's legal obligation to employees serving in the armed forces. You might also consider how to deal with employees who wish to take time off on these holidays to honor servicemen and women.

What must employers do regarding their employees called to service in the Armed Forces? Regarding federal holidays, are employers obligated to allow employees time off to observe them?

Let's consider each of these questions in turn.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act is a federal law that imposes duties on all employers regarding their employees in the uniformed services.

Generally, the law prohibits discrimination in hiring, promotion, retention and employment benefits against employees based on past, present or future membership in any branch of the U.S. armed service. It applies to voluntary and involuntary military service.

Employees are entitled to up to five years' leave for military service. When they return to work, they are entitled to the same (or an equivalent) job that they would have had if they been continuously employed during their leave (assuming they remain qualified or could become qualified with reasonable effort). This includes the same seniority, pay, benefits, and promotion. Upon return, the employee may not be terminated without good cause for up to one year, depending on length of service.

Reemployment Rights Act benefits do not apply to individuals who were dishonorably discharged or who do not report back to their jobs in a timely manner.

Employers are not obligated to pay employees during their leave. An employer also has no obligation to give a serviceman or woman their job back upon return if the employer's circumstances have changed enough that reemployment would be unreasonable or impossible.

Now consider the second question regarding time off for federal holidays. As an employer, are you obligated to give employees time off for federal holidays such as Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day?

Legally, the answer is generally no. A federal holiday really means that many federal employees get paid time off. Private employers are usually allowed to require employees to work any day of the year, including Christmas Day and Sundays.

In some cases, employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements may mean that employers must give certain employees paid time off. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin, requires employers to make a "reasonable accommodation" for employees' observance of religious holidays. Depending upon the circumstances, this may require time off for some employees for religious purposes.

Other than that, employers are generally free to expect employees to work on Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, July 4th, and so on. While this may not be the right thing to do in many situations, it is generally legal.

As always, if you are unsure what to do in a specific situation, be sure to consult a human resources specialist or employment law attorney.