Reservists and National Guardsmen returning from Iraq are guaranteed to get their civilian jobs back. But is Uncle Sam really looking out for our troops? Not in Colorado. Just ask Jim Vigil
“Well,” Vigil remembers Barela telling him, “that’s not my problem.”
The next day, Dec. 17, back at DPS headquarters, Vigil met with Joyce Fell of the HR department. She, too, paraphrased USERRA law and maintained that a comparable position “could be a middle school social studies teacher or a substitute.” In terms of salary, Vigil said, that might be correct—as dean he had been earning an annual salary of $34,000—but he correctly pointed out that neither of those jobs has the prestige of a dean, and therefore would not be on par, as defined by USERRA. “That’s not how we interpret the law,” Vigil remembers Fell saying, and she instructed him to begin reporting to East “until we can get this figured out.” Judging from the label Vigil found on his mailbox at East, the demotion was official. It read: Jim Vigil, Full-Time Sub.
On his second day back at East after Christmas break, while assisting the two deans of students, Vigil got a call from a female DPS HR employee, whose name he did not write down. She informed him that from now on he was a “long-term substitute;” each morning he would get a call from the district informing him where he was needed. Principal Callum advised Vigil to disregard that call and assured him that she was working with the DPS to keep him at East.
The following evening, Blair Richardson, the parent of an East student, threw a welcome-home party for Vigil at the Irish Snug bar and restaurant. Richardson is a politically connected businessman; his party guest was then Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman. After Vigil told Richardson about his job hassles, he assured Vigil that he would bring it to the attention of his “friend,” DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet. Richardson advised Vigil to remain quiet and patient, that it would be straightened out.
While the teachers at the party, including Principal Callum, hit the buffet table and open bar, someone, unbeknownst to Vigil, began circulating a petition. It read: The undersigned staff members of East High School respectfully request that Jimmy Vigil be returned to his position as a full time Dean of Students at East High School. After ten months of serving in a combat zone on active duty in Iraq and being promised his job both verbally and by federal statute, this staff feels it is not only compassionate but the morally correct action to take. Forty-two faculty members, or about half of the East High staff, signed the petition. It hung in the school’s reception area awaiting more signatures until the next afternoon, when Callum had it removed.
For the next seven weeks Vigil heard rumors of an administrator working to get him fired, and generally he felt like an unwelcome burden in his own school. In May, as the academic year ended, he was still uncertain about his employment status, yet bearing in mind Richardson’s advice he remained hopeful that when the new school year began he’d have his job back. Then he got a letter from DPS: The Board of Education at its regular meeting held on May 18th, 2006, accepted the Superintendent’s recommendation to nonrenew your employment contract with the Denver Public Schools.…”
Vigil decided he’d been patient long enough. Talking to HR person after HR person down at DPS headquarters. Listening to the assurances of the principal who’d already broken her word and laid him off. Waiting for the well-intentioned Richardson to work the back channels with Bennet. And what had it gotten him? He’d been fired, rehired, and demoted, and now was looking at a letter that canned him, again—a decision that was approved by Superintendent Bennet himself. As far as Vigil’s reading of USERRA, the Denver Public Schools system had violated the law not once, not twice, but three times.
Vigil knew all about ESGR. He’d heard the official pitch in countless briefings. But there was no way he was going to call them. During his 18 years in the Marines he’d also heard the unofficial intel about ESGR, and in particular about the Colorado branch. And like just about every citizen-service member in Colorado, Vigil had been following the saga of Steve Duarte.
You get a sense of how honorably 53-year-old Steve Duarte served his country when you see the walls of his home office: They are covered with dozens of photographs and commendations commemorating his 29 years in the U.S. Marine Corps—beginning with his graduation from Officer Candidate School in 1977, and including his last overseas deployment, to Iraq in 2003. And you get a sense of how dishonorably his country served him after he returned from Iraq when you see the stacks of legal documents neatly piled on the office floor. “When you’re over there in Iraq,” Duarte says on this late-summer afternoon, “you think about your family and keeping yourself safe. You don’t think about your job. You’re assuming, well, our government and country will take care of us. I still don’t believe it.”
In November 2002, Duarte, a Marine Reserve officer employed by Denver’s Agilent Technologies Inc., was called up for a nine-month deployment to Kuwait and Iraq. The war was in its first phase, and Duarte was just behind the front lines, supporting a group of Navy Seabees. The Seabees are engineers; their job was to rebuild, or replace entirely, bridges, roads, and runways destroyed during the initial battles. While the Seabees knew their way around a blueprint, they needed a refresher on combat tactics, and Duarte and his group handled that training. It became clear to Officer Duarte that he was very much in the shit on the second day of the war, when an Iraqi missile hit only 200 meters from his HQ.
Duarte returned to Colorado and to his job at Agilent in July 2003. By then, he’d worked for the company for more than 19 years. He had helped design the payment structure for the company’s worldwide sales force. But upon his return from Iraq he was assigned a “special project”—to investigate how other companies pay their sales forces. Duarte suspected he’d intentionally been sent on a Mission Impossible. The fact of the matter was, companies consider their payment structures proprietary information and rarely share such information. His suspicions were confirmed on Monday, Nov. 10, when his boss fired him over the phone. Only four months after returning from a war zone to a job he’d had for almost two decades he was instructed to have his office cleared out by the end of the week.
The severance package of $54,821 didn’t ease Duarte’s anxieties. What would he, his wife, and his youngest of their three children do about health insurance? And then there was the more frightening uncertainty: During his many years at the company Duarte had reached an annual salary of $88,800. Where now would a middle-aged man find a job—that is, if he found a job—that would pay him comparably?
Adhering to the recommended military protocol, the Monday he was fired Duarte called his commanding officer. Marine Corps Reserve Col. George Aucoin tried to reassure Duarte that all would work out; after all, Aucoin said, there’s USERRA and ESGR. He advised Duarte to immediately do two things: First, e-mail a copy of USERRA to his bosses and gently inform them that they were breaking the law—that after his return they were required to keep him employed for one year; and second, Aucoin instructed him to call ESGR.