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Wi-Fi Alliance allegedly axed army reservist for being called up. Now the Empire strikes back

Trade body gets sued by Uncle Sam, insists no wrongdoing

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco

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The US Department of Justice on Thursday filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the Wi-Fi Alliance – a non-profit based in Austin, Texas, that promotes Wi-Fi technology and standards – for allegedly laying off an employee because of his ongoing military service obligations.

The government's complaint, filed on behalf of Charles O’Donnell, a Lieutenant Colonel with the US Army Reserve, claimed the alliance violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994, a law designed to prevent private employers from discriminating against military personnel for fulfilling service obligations.

In a statement, John Gore, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the DoJ's Civil Rights Division, said on Thursday the complaint underscores the DoJ's commitment to protecting members of the military. "The men and women of our armed services expect and are entitled to the peace of mind of knowing that their civilian employment will not be jeopardized because they serve our country," he said.

Training

As a member of the US Army Reserve, O'Donnell is required to participate in one two-week tour of duty for the Army per year, as well as up to 48 four-hour periods of Inactive Duty Training.

O'Donnell, a resident of Austin, began working for the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2013 as a program manager who helped vendors get their Wi-Fi implementations working.

The government's complaint contends that in 2015 the Wi-Fi Alliance was struggling financially and projected a revenue decline of $1.3m in the coming year. During this period, the organization discouraged employee absences from the office, to the extent that one worker cut his own vacation short.

O'Donnell around this time was away for his two-week tour of duty and two additional weeks of Inactive Duty Training.

When the Wi-Fi Alliance Board of Directors decided to lay off six employees in June 2016, the decision was made that one of those individuals would be a program manager. O'Donnell was one of seven program managers at the time.

Believing he had been targeted for his periodic military absences, O'Donnell filed a complaint in December 2016 with the Department of Labor's Veterans Employment and Training Service alleging violation of USERRA.

Some of my best friends...

In a statement emailed to The Register, a spokesperson for the Wi-Fi Alliance said the organization respects veterans and reservists, noting that several of its executives, including president and CEO Edgar Figueroa, served in the military.

"Any decision to eliminate positions within a company our size is incredibly difficult, and we count a number of long-time colleagues and friends among those who ultimately lost their jobs as part of a necessary reduction in force in 2016," the spokesperson said. "Status as a veteran and reservist or the taking of military leave were not factors in reduction decisions."

The Wi-Fi Alliance spokesperson said that while the organization chooses not to comment on pending litigation, it intends to defend against this claim vigorously. ®

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