WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Tuesday pushed for stronger legal protection for guardsmen and reservists looking to return to their civilian jobs without penalty after mobilization, saying the government owes them that security.

"These are individuals who are serving our country … and it’s nothing less than shameful that they’re coming home and finding themselves victims of discrimination," said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., House sponsor of a measure to strengthen the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

That law prohibits employers of guardsmen and reservists from firing them, cutting their pay or changing their benefits when they are called to active-duty service. But veterans groups complain that too often businesses ignore those rules with little or no consequence.

Rep. John Boccieri, D-Ohio, a major in the Air Force Reserve, said he has seen colleagues in the service spend months serving in harm’s way only to return home and lose their jobs because their bosses found other options while they were gone.

"And when presented with the monumental mountain they have to climb to fight it — legal fees, three years of arguments — they walk away," he said.

Davis’ said his bill and companion legislation introduced by Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., would add "more teeth" to the existing USERRA rules. The measure would for the first time allow punitive damages in such disputes, instead of limiting reservists to only actual lost wages.

"We’ve learned that saying, ‘Please don’t do this,’ isn’t enough," Casey said. "There have to be real penalties."

The legislation would also allow USERRA cases against private employers to be heard in state courts, instead of just federal courts. Bocceri said that could dramatically cut down on the typical three-year wait that reservists face in employment disputes.

State governments would also be held to the same standards as private companies under the measure, and wage discrimination related to a reservist’s deployment would be specifically outlawed.

Similar legislation sponsored by Casey failed last session. Both he and Davis acknowledged that the measure will face opposition from business groups, but hope Democratic leadership will support their effort.

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