As published in New York Times 10/28/2005:
After Uniform, White-Collar Blues
By STACEY STOWE
Published: October 28, 2005
Michael Serricchio was an up-and-coming stockbroker, tending $250 million worth of accounts in Connecticut and earning $200,000 a year in salary and commissions. He was also a sergeant in the Air Force Reserve.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, his unit was called up and he began a two-year deployment that included a stint in Saudi Arabia. When he came back, his company had merged, his clients had been parceled out and there seemed to be no place for him at the newly constituted office of Wachovia Securities.
Michael Serricchio in a Black Hawk helicopter he flew at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in 2002.
Mr. Serricchio said he tried for more than three months to return to work, and when he finally was given a new assignment, it was making cold calls for a $2,000-a-month draw on commission.
"It's not like I was in jail," said Mr. Serricchio, 33, a reservist for 11 years and father of a 3-year-old girl. "You feel you should have something. You feel everything should be frozen in time while you're gone."
Wachovia will not comment on Mr. Serricchio's version of the events, saying that employee matters are confidential and that this complaint could end up in the courts. But the case of Mr. Serricchio points up another of the many complexities involved in fighting a war with a large contingent of National Guard soldiers and reservists - part-time soldiers who must disrupt their lives to fulfill their military obligation and fill the ranks.
Even for those who return home from service unharmed, healthy and fully ready to pick up their lives where they left off, re-emerging as a civilian can be tricky. For workers like Mr. Serricchio, it can be even more complicated, according to people familiar with the military and workplace issues.
A 1994 law, the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, commonly referred to as Userra, protects against losing a job because of military service. Even so, last year the Department of Defense handled 6,242 cases involving claims of job discrimination, job placement or inadequate pay or vacation, according to Maj. Robert Palmer of the Air Force, the spokesman for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, one of two federal agencies that deal with employment complaints.
The agency could not provide a breakdown of complaints by profession nor an exact accounting of how the complaints were resolved.
"These are complex issues," Major Palmer said. "Sometimes the Guard and reservists have an unreal expectation of what they are due, and some employers don't know what they're supposed to do."
The issue becomes even more complicated when it comes to those who step off the corporate ladder for a tour of duty. And there are many of those reservists and guardsmen, the Pentagon says. Of the 500,000 reservists and guardsmen called up in the last four years, about one-third are in professional careers.
Many are people who leave behind clients and patients and accounts. In their absence, certifications can lapse, clients and patients can migrate elsewhere and sales territories can be poached. "I've heard stories of attorneys in big law firms who are deployed and when they return" their clients have been given to another lawyer, said Kevin P. Flood, a retired Navy lawyer. "The problem is out there, but I don't know how Userra can prevent what happens when you have people in partnerships or senior management experiencing difficulties."
Representative Robert E. Andrews, a Democrat from New Jersey and a member of the personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said he had received almost a dozen complaints from constituents who are white-collar reservists. One of his constituents is an associate at a law firm who believes his deployment took him off the partnership track. "Technically, that might not be a violation, but these people are smart, they're not going to write a memo saying that military service might be the cause," Representative Andrews said.
In Mr. Serricchio's case, a bumpy stock market and the 2003 merger of his company, Prudential Financial, with Wachovia, further clouded an already murky work environment. While Prudential paid him $5,000 a month during his first year of deployment, far beyond what the law requires, he said he was forbidden to contact his clients, his name was taken off the accounts and he heard his clients were either dropped or doled out to other brokers. He said he called Prudential twice and Wachovia once during his deployment to question the removal of his name from his accounts but said he was told he was not actively working for the companies.(Page 2 of 2)
Mr. Serricchio also said that, without notifying him, Prudential settled a legal claim against him by a client who had accused him of forging a document. Settling such a legal case without notifying a reservist is illegal under the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act, Mr. Flood said. Mr. Serricchio now has a mark on his record he insists is without merit.
Mr. Serricchio said that when he returned from active duty in November 2003, he asked his lawyer, David S. Golub, to notify the company that he was ready to get back to work. But it took 120 days until Mr. Serricchio was welcomed to the Westport office of Wachovia.
By then, he said, just four of his original clients remained and he was handed a book of dormant accounts and offered $2,000 a month that had to be repaid out of his commissions. He balked and told his manager that he would contact his lawyer, Mr. Golub. Three days later, he said, the company sent him a letter informing him that he had "voluntarily resigned." Mr. Serricchio said he intended to sue.
Tony Mattera, a spokesman for Wachovia Securities, said he could not speak about Mr. Serricchio. "We are dealing with his attorney and through the appropriate channels," Mr. Mattera said. "Also, some issues predate our merger."
Jim Gorman, a spokesman for Prudential, said he was unaware of any complaints from Mr. Serricchio.
Glenn Gotz, an economist at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally financed research organization, said it was often hard to prove that military service led to a job setback. "If companies want to get around Userra," said Mr. Gotz, who has studied the issue extensively, "in terms of promotion and hiring, they can."
But one returning reservist in Colorado who claimed he was a victim of job discrimination won a lawsuit against his former employer, Agilent Technologies. Judge Lewis T. Babcock said that Lt. Col. Joseph S. Duarte, a Marine reservist, had "paid a steep price for his military deployment" when he was fired from a job he had held for 19 years shortly after his return from active duty in July 2003.
The company claimed that it had shrunk its work force by 28,000 and that Colonel Duarte's dismissal was not related to either his performance or military service. But the judge ordered Agilent to pay Colonel Duarte, of Littleton, Colo., $380,000.
"It went way beyond money for me," said Colonel Duarte, 50, who sued after searching for a new job for more than a year.
"I told my wife, I might be sweeping floors somewhere if we lose this but I'm going to fight this in court because I don't want some private or lance corporal to come back, find their job gone, and not have the means to do what I'm doing."
Since 2001, the National Association of Securities Dealers has received 760 notifications of people registered with them being called up for active duty. Many who are deployed pass their clients to a colleague, said Bill Singer, a Wall Street lawyer who represents stockbrokers in labor disputes. The reservist and the colleague share in the commissions while the reservist is away. When the reservist returns, he picks up where he left off. But in some cases, clients end up staying with the colleague or moving on.
"The problem is that they're being asked to make two sacrifices; one is the sacrifice for their country, putting their life at risk," Mr. Singer said. "Then to some extent there is a penalty being imposed upon them when they return because they are being forced to lose their business."
Companies like the American International Group, New York Life Insurance, Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual and the Hartford Financial Services Group pay active-duty reservists a monthly salary that was the average of what they earned for the year before leaving, or the difference between their civilian and military pay for all or part of their deployment.
Several go beyond the federal law because it's the "right thing to do," said Axel Freudmann, senior vice president for human resources at A.I.G.
Mr. Mattera, of Wachovia, said about 300 of the company's 90,000 employees have been called to active duty in the last few years. "Our military leave policy is recognized by the Department of Defense," he said, adding that the company was proud of it. He pointed out that the company had received "dozens of testimonials from Guard and Reserve members."
Mr. Serricchio, who now lives in Westfield, Mass., said he would like to get back to the fast-paced arena of stock trading. Instead, he said, he is helping his wife, Maria, with her business, a tanning salon.