On November 21, President Obama signed into law the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. The new law amends employee protections under the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) to add employer liability for hostile environment harassment based on an employee's military service.
This change was prompted by a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision concluding that unlike Title VII, USERRA's statutory language did not provide for hostile environment harassment claims when a supervisor or co-workers create an offensive working environment due to an employee's military obligations. Congress reacted to this decision by adding to USERRA the exact language from Title VII which serves as the basis for harassment claims under that statute.
Although the new law took immediate effect, the Department of Labor will issue regulations implementing this change. Employers reviewing their anti-harassment policies should expand their coverage to include military service, and expect additional DOL guidance with regard to compliance. Employee and supervisor harassment training should also mention military service as a protected category.
The new law also provides employers with tax credits when they hire unemployed veterans.