A US National Guardsman from Sumter County has received back pay and other expenses under a settlement reached with the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Inc. (WREC) over allegations that the electric coop terminated the soldier’s employment after he returned from a lengthy COVID-19-related emergency deployment in Florida. WREC’s service area includes Brooksville, Weeki Wachee Springs and Spring Hill.
According to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the soldier’s complaint alleged that the firing violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). The Act protects the rights of uniformed servicemembers to retain their civilian employment following absences due to military service obligations. It also provides that servicemembers shall not be discriminated against because of their military obligations.
The DOJ said that in the summer of 2020, US Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Garrett Woodward was deployed through October 2020 along with his unit to supervise a COVID testing and vaccination site in Florida. The deployment was part of the state’s emergency mobilization in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, from January 2018 to October 2020 Woodward was also employed in the WREC’s apprentice lineman program to become a journeyman. While working in that program he was consistently rated as an excellent employee, the DOJ said.
According to the DOJ, Woodward immediately reported back to WREC when his deployment ended, but was terminated by the electric coop the day he reported back to work.
He subsequently filed a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) alleging that WREC terminated his employment on the basis of his military service obligations in violation of USERRA. VETS investigated this matter and referred it to the DOJ after attempts at resolution failed.
Under terms of the settlement which was reached in January, WREC agreed to pay Woodward $80,000 in back pay and other damages. The settlement also requires WREC to comply with all the provisions of USERRA in the future.
In a written statement, WREC’s Manager of Member Relations David Lambert said that the electric cooperative has a long history of employing military veterans and supporting veterans’ causes.
“WREC has a deep respect for the men and women who served, and are currently serving our country. We appreciate the sacrifice they and their families have made for our great nation, “ Lambert said in a written statement. “WREC currently has 38 veterans serving in various roles throughout our organization including four who are in senior management positions.”
SSG Woodard has served in the Florida Army National Guard with distinction for over 21 years. He is currently attached to the 53rd Support Battalion out of Bartow, Florida. During his service, he has been called up to active duty including serving in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006 and Iraq in 2010 and 2011 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“He will leave for training in Virginia soon,” said his wife Deborah Woodard. “And he’s looking for a job.”
To learn more about USERRA visit the Justice Department’s website at www.justice.gov/crt-military/employment-rights-userra and www.justice.gov/servicemembers, as well as the Department of Labor website at www.dol.gov/vets/programs/userra.