Weather Channel Anchor Says She Was Fired Because Of Military Service

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Nicole MitchellThe internet is full of tributes to Maj. Nicole Mitchell, "weather babe," who for seven years was a familiar face on the Weather Channel. But Mitchell is far more than just a "Hot Girl of the Weather Channel." She's been a military reservist for two decades, now serving as a member of the elite "Hurricane Hunters" for the Air Force Reserve. She has degrees in meteorology and law, and claims that her employment reviews were always outstanding. So it came as a shock to Mitchell, and her fans, when the Weather Channel kicked her off the air in 2010.

Mitchell is one of thousands of National Guard and Reserve members who believe that they lost a job, or were denied a job, because they're on-call to fight for their country. And like many, she's suing -- alleging discrimination against members of the military. After NBC bought The Weather Channel in 2008, Mitchell says that her new managers would frequently complain about her military obligations, purposely schedule work shifts during her trainings, and dock her vacation days. She was bumped from the channel's flagship show to a later night broadcast, and finally, four days after she returned from her two-week annual training in 2010, she was told that her contract wouldn't be renewed, "for business reasons."

"Everyone's loyalty was being tested," says Mitchell about the more intensive demands under NBC. " 'We say jump and we're looking to see who will jump and who won't.' And I couldn't jump." NBC Universal didn't respond to requests for comment.

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The unemployment rate in the guard is stunningly high -- over 20 percent at the end of 2012, according to an internal survey cited by Army Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association. Some guard chapters report brigades returning home to unemployment rates upward of 50 percent. Citizen-soldiers often are young, having enlisted just after high school, which partly explains these figures. But many leaders in the reserves say that discrimination is rampant. "Anecdotally, we continue to hear that employers will find subtle ways to avoid hiring a serving member of the guard or reserve," Hargett testified.

It's illegal for an employer to discriminate against a person because of their military service under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, but a USERRA violation often is hard to prove. Nevertheless, a Department of Defense agency -- the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve -- handled 2,793 USERRA cases last year, or the equivalent of 54 a week.

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The number of actual cases is likely higher. Mitchell believes many people sign away their legal rights in order to get a badly-needed severance package, or simply give up. Mitchell, for one, decided to hire her own lawyer and pursue her case privately. But because she signed an arbitration agreement as part of her condition of employment, her case will be resolved behind closed doors, a process that critics charge is pro-management. "I'm sad I won't get my day in court," says Mitchell, whose hearing will be later this year.

Helping Veterans, Ignoring Reserves

In the past two years, joblessness among veterans became front page news as the rate for young post-9/11 veterans topped 30 percent. The private sector responded nobly with pledges to hire veterans, and intensified recruiting efforts and transition workshops. But some believe this focus on veterans returning from war excludes the specific issues facing citizen-soldiers, whose military duties are ongoing.

Mitchell says that she went to a meeting last year of the Veterans in Film and Television group, where someone from NBC Universal, one of the parent companies of The Weather Channel, emphasized the company's commitment to hire a thousand veterans. "We really believe in you guys," she remembers him saying.

Little did he know that someone in the audience -- Mitchell -- was currently suing his company for violating USERRA. "You can still have a company that says we'll hire veterans, but they discriminate against reserve," she says. "There's a difference between someone who's done, and you don't have to actively support military work."

Since losing her job at The Weather Channel, Mitchell's been picking up odd hosting and acting jobs wherever she can, and took and passed the California Bar Exam. She's also volunteered for a lot more military work, doing almost two months straight during the last hurricane season. Mitchell's career may have stalled in the civilian world, but in the reserves, she was just promoted from captain to major.

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