Army Reservist Sues Suburban Fire District for Alleged Retaliation - NBC Chicago
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Army Reservist Sues Suburban Fire District for Alleged Retaliation

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    Army Reservist Sues Suburban Fire District for Alleged Retaliation

    A suburban firefighter who also serves in the Army Reserves is suing his civilian employer for alleged retaliation and defamation. He is also seeking back pay. NBC 5's Chris Coffey Investigates.

    (Published Monday, Sept. 23, 2019)

    Few people are able to work two dream jobs in their life. Army Reservist and Bloomingdale Fire Protection District firefighter Greg Heckenbach works both of his dream jobs at the same time.

    “I only ever wanted to be two things, a fireman and a soldier,” said Heckenbach.

    Heckenbach joined the Army in 2001. He eventually left the active duty military and became a firefighter in suburban Bloomingdale. In 2012, Heckenbach joined the Army Reserves while continuing his career with the fire protection district.

    But in recent years Heckenbach said his civilian employer has made him feel like he’s had a “target” on his back.

    “It was stressful. It got to the point where I didn’t necessarily want to go to the firehouse anymore because daily I’m getting called in about drill weekends or having them requesting forms that they didn’t need to,” Heckenbach said.

    Heckenbach said he provided his fire protection district supervisors plenty of notice for his Reserve training and battle assembly weekends. But he said at times the fire district refused to grant him leave.

    He was compelled to take vacation days or trade shifts with other firefighters to attend his military training.

    “I think it could have been avoided if we had just sat down and tried to figure it out,” Heckenbach said. “I don’t know why they wanted to fight it.”

    The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) protects the civilian jobs of active and reserve military personnel in the United States who are called to active duty. Additionally, the Illinois Service Member Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (ISERRA) requires civilian employers to pay the difference in service members’ salaries when they train with the military.

    As a result, Heckenbach filed a federal lawsuit alleging against the Bloomingdale Fire Protection District alleging discrimination and retaliation, defamation and creating a hostile work environment. He is also seeking back pay.

    Attorney John Maher is representing Heckenbach in the lawsuit.

    “That differential pay is by law and is required. Now, that’s where the beginning of this misconception comes in to say that they’re double-dipping. They’re not. Instead, they’re being compensated for the disruption in their life, for training, for being ready, for being mobilized and being ready to put their life on the line in case they get to call to go over,” Maher said.

    In court papers, the Bloomingdale Fire Protection District denies Heckenbach’s allegations. Its attorney said the district complied with all state and federal laws.

    “I feel that they will be vindicated in court,” said attorney Steve DiNolfo.

    The Illinois Attorney General’s office said it has received 103 complaints from military reservists about their employers since 2017.

    A spokesperson said before the state files a lawsuit, it attempts to educate the employer, and if that fails, it mediates the complaint. If mediation fails, the Attorney General opens a formal investigation into the employer, according to the spokesperson.

    “The Attorney General is committed to protecting the employment rights of service members and ensuring that employers understand their responsibilities under state and federal law,” said a spokesperson for the Illinois Attorney General. “We continue to fight for members of the Illinois National Guard and the Army Reserve when their rights are violated by employers, and we encourage military reservists with questions or complaints to contact our office at 1-800-382-3000.”

    Heckenbach said he is speaking out so service members know their rights.

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