Vt. Guard Discrimination Case Reopened

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(Host) The U.S. Department of Labor has reopened the cases of four Vermont National Guardsmen who allege they were discriminated against while working at Vermont’s prison in Springfield.   

VPR’s Nina Keck has this update.

(Keck) This story starts over a year ago, when several members of the Vermont National Guard were working as temporary corrections officers at the state’s prison in Springfield.  

Tim Nolan, an 18 year military veteran from Chittenden, said after three months at the prison, his career seemed to be on track. But in an interview before his deployment last month, he said he and other National Guardsmen were passed over for promotions and given poor shifts after they notified prison officials they would be sent to Afghanistan.

(Nolan)"From that point on we became nonentities in the system. One of the younger officers was told that if he didn’t have a full time position by the time he deployed, he’d have to resign. Another officer was told, ‘Why would we give you the position if you’re going to deploy?’" 

(Keck)  Prison officials have denied any wrongdoing and an investigation by Vermont’s Agency of Human Services, which oversees the Department of Corrections, found no basis for the soldier’s claims.  Tim Nolan and three other Guardsmen filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor.   The Labor Department investigated and agreed with the state. 

Tracey Nolan, Tim’s wife, says she was pleasantly surprised by a phone call two weeks ago informing her that the cases were being reopened. 

(Tracey Nolan) "I got a phone call about 8 in the morning from Mr. Bob Kuenzli saying that he was with the Washington Bureau of the Department of Labor and that he was a retired vet and they had taken a look at it in Washington and decided that something didn’t seem right. They didn’t think the case was handled well and he was personally going to look into it. He told me, he said, if it was just one soldier complaining that would be one thing.  But there are five soldiers that have complained about the same thing. And, he says, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire.’"

(Keck) No one from the Labor Department would comment for this story, saying ongoing investigations are confidential.  

Samuel Wright is director of the Service Members Law Center in Washington, D.C., an organization that helps soldiers with legal issues.  

Wright worked for the Department of Labor for 10 years and helped write the federal law that provides re-employment rights to returning veterans.  

He says he’s been following the Vermont cases closely and believes the Labor Department mishandled the first investigation.

(Wright) "These people don’t have the expertise; sometimes they don’t have the motivation.  So they accept the employer’s word for it.  It’s the easiest way to close the case.   And they think they’re doing a service for the veteran.  They’re not doing a service at all.

(Keck) Back in Chittenden, Tracey Nolan sits in front of her computer. 

She says according to Labor Department emails she’s received, they hope to finish their new investigation by April 1.  

But she says with her husband and the other Guard members deployed, it may take longer.   Whatever the outcome, she says, her husband is excited that the cases are getting a second look.

 (Tracey Nolan) "Through all this bad stuff that’s going on – leaving the family – it was kind of one little good light that someone was taking him seriously. There’s a little glimmer of hope that something may come of this."

(Keck) For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Chittenden.

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