A National Guard Special Forces Soldier fired by the U.S. Postal Service for “excessive absence due to military service” has won a court decision that could mean more than $1 million in back pay and a new job.
Sergeant Maj. Richard Erickson, 47, of Ft. Myers, Fla., was fired from the Postal Service 11 years ago while in training at Camp Blanding, Fla. On Feb. 28 a federal appeals court reversed the federal Merit Systems Protection Board’s finding that the Postal Service could fire Erickson for abandoning his job. The court also overturned the MSPB’s ruling that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights — the federal law that safeguards reservists’ civilian jobs while they’re on active duty — didn’t apply in Erickson’s case.
“Honestly, it’s been a very hard road,” Erickson said during an interview with Military.com. “I had to be separated from my family when serving, and when I was home I didn’t have a job. For 11 years I had to fight for my rights.”
Erickson first joined the Army when he was 19. After three years active duty he entered the Army Reserves, and when Desert Storm came along he went over to the National Guard and Special Forces. “That’s when things went wrong with the post office,” he said, adding that SF training required him to be away from his job more often than he’d been previously.
At one point a human resources official called him at Camp Blanding, Fla., where he was at training, to talk about his postal career and ask him what his intentions were.
“My client said that when he got out he’d be returning to work,” Tully said. But the war on terror put the post office job on the back-burner.
“Then 9/11 hit and he’s one of those guys riding on a horse in Afghanistan,” Tully said. Erickson served with the 3rd Special Forces Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group. He earned the Bronze Star for Valor, the Army Commendation Medal for Valor and the Purple Heart, Tully said.
Erickson’s lawyer Mathew Tully said the Postal Service’s Fort Myers Processing and Distribution Center notified Erickson of his termination with a letter mailed to his home in 2000, but the Soldier didn’t discover he’d been fired until he left the Army in 2005 and called his old workplace. “The post office said, ‘sorry, buddy, we fired you back in 2000,’ ” Tully said.
Erickson subsequently continued to drill with the National Guard while fighting to get his job back under USERRA. Since then the Merit System Protection Board has twice ruled that Erickson did not qualify for USERRA protections.
In one instance the board concluded he was fired for leaving his job and not because of military service. It also agreed with the Postal Service that Erickson exempted himself from the protections of USERRA by serving more than five years of active duty.
Tully said his client served less than five years because training periods don’t count against the limit.
As a result of the federal court ruling on March 1 Tully is resubmitting the case to the Merit System Protection Board, and he believes the board will order the Postal Service to reemploy Erickson with back pay and benefits approaching $1 million.
“This is a man who spent years away from his family so that he could protect and serve his country,” Tully said. “It is an absolute disgrace that [he] had to endure such hardships.”
The post office intends to offer Erikson the same job he held in 2000 — distribution clerk at the processing and distribution center — but Tully wants the employer to factor in the advancement his client would have received in the intervening years. If they don’t get a satisfactory deal, the next court fight will be over damages, Tully said.
For his part, Erickson said he’s confident that he could tackle any management job the postal service offers. “You give me something to do and I’ll get it done for you,” he said.