FORTUNE Small Business:

Must I rehire an Iraq vet?

A small business owner wonders whether he is obligated to take back a former employee who returned from Iraq with an injury.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(FSB Magazine) -- Dear FSB: One of my best employees, who was an Army Reservist, shipped out to Iraq about a year and a half ago. We are a small shop (eight people, including me), and I had to hire someone to replace him. Now he is home, and he wants his old job back, even though because of a spinal injury he isn't physically able to do the work he did before: installing boilers. How do I handle this? --Dave Lounsbury, Narrowsburg Mechanical, Narrowsburg, N.Y.

Dear Dave: Every once in a while (and not just every April 15), Uncle Sam expects us to step up and do something for our country. This may be one of those times. According to the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (dol.gov/vets), an employer, no matter how small, must rehire returning veterans, either into the jobs they had before or - thanks to the statute's so-called escalator provision - into more senior positions they would have attained had they not been called to active duty.

rehiring_war_vet.03.jpg
The law requires employers to rehire all returning vets, even if injuries prevent them from performing their old jobs.
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If your former employee were still physically able to do his old job, you'd have to give it to him and let the new worker go. "It's a harsh result" for the replacement hire, notes Matthew Gilligan, a partner in law firm Alston & Bird in Atlanta (alston.com). "But, because the law requires it, you or your firm would incur no liability."

Because this injured veteran can no longer perform his old job, it gets a little trickier. The law obliges you to find a job he can handle and give him that one - again, even if it means you have to reassign or sack whoever is doing it now. What if there is no such job? Do your best to create one. (Office manager? Bookkeeper? Telephone sales?).

If it turns out that you have nothing this veteran can do and you can't invent a position for him, then the law allows you to decline to take him back. But that, too, would be a harsh outcome, and he may end up appealing. "Big employers generally have many more places to put people of varying abilities than small ones do," observes Gilligan. "So the burden of this legislation falls most heavily on small companies like yours."

Tell us what you think. As a business owner, how do you feel about being legally obligated to take back veteran employees? Have you rehired workers who served? Let us know.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.