Nicole Mitchell believes her work with the Air Force Reserve is the reason the Weather Channel fired her as a meteorologist last year. (Courtesy of Nicole Mitchell)
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Just days after she returned from a two-week deployment with the Hurricane Hunters, Nicole Mitchell’s boss told her The Weather Channel would not renew her contract as an on-air meteorologist.
Her firing came after several spats with management over the time she was taking to meet her Air Force Reserve obligations, Mitchell said.
Now Mitchell, who was recently promoted to major, is in arbitration with The Weather Channel and its parent company, NBC Universal, both of which she sued for an undisclosed amount. A hearing is set for August.
Mitchell wants to bring attention to the problem of employers retaliating against reservists for taking time to serve.
“The reason I finally spoke up about my case was because I know so many people personally that this has happened to, not everyone losing their job, but my stepfather was on a volunteer fire department; they tried to suspend him once because he hadn’t made enough calls in a quarter because he was deployed,” she said.
Mitchell started working at The Weather Channel in 2004, but she said issues with her military service arose after the channel was bought by NBC four years later. At the time, Mitchell was taking off three or four weeks a year to be with the Hurricane Hunters, the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.
“Obviously, there’s always scheduling issues with a reservist, so there’d been one or two times even prior to NBC coming in where we’d had a couple challenges, but nothing that had never been worked out and nothing where I ever felt my job was insecure,” she said.
After not being able to come in on two separate weekends to meet a “hair consultant” and for a “makeup consultation,” Mitchell was pulled off The Weather Channel’s flagship show and put on an overnight show that conflicted with her military weekends, according to her lawsuit.
“So I’d had a schedule for five years that didn’t conflict with the weekends at all, and they actually changed my schedule to start conflict with weekends,” she said.
Then in 2010, she was told her contract would not be renewed, Mitchell said. The Weather Channel did not say exactly why it let her go other than it was a “business decision,” but Mitchell said the only complaints she’d ever received from management were about her scheduling.
“I always had good and above-average employee reviews,” she said. “I had good ratings, which is im-portant in the TV world; popular with viewers, all of the things that should have lent to being retained were there. There were a number of contracts up at the same time as mine. Everyone else is being renewed — but I was singled out for nonrenewal — including some people that had less favorable reviews than I did.”
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, is supposed to protect reservists from being fired for taking time to serve, but it’s common for employers to try to avoid following the law, said retired Navy Capt. Samuel Wright, director of the Service Members Law Center.
“I think employers, they claim they don’t know about USERRA, but I think they do know and they’re just tired of it,” Wright said. “The number of National Guard and reserve members who have been mobilized since 9/11 is approaching 900,000. Maybe 300,000 of those have been called more than once, so employers just don’t want to put up with it any more.”
Wright couldn’t quantify how many reservists have been fired in violation of USERRA. He handles between 300 and 400 queries a month from people asking about USERRA.
“The Department of Justice files maybe 25 cases a year,” he said. “I believe that more than 10 times that amount are filed privately.”
Mitchell expressed guarded optimism that she will prevail in the arbitration. “I wouldn’t have filed the case if I didn’t believe I had cause ... and I didn’t think it was a strong case,” she said. “With that said, you never know how the legal system is going to go.”
In a statement, The Weather Channel said it and its owners are committed to creating “a work atmosphere free of discrimination,” in compliance with USERRA.
“We cannot comment on pending litigation, but as with many situations, there is more than one version of what occurred,” the statement said. “We disagree with many of the assertions in the plaintiff's press statements and continue to vigorously defend the matter in the arbitration process.”
NBC declined to comment.
Mitchell now spends between three and four months a year with the Hurricane Hunters, and she does television freelance work, but being let go by The Weather Channel has hurt her career.
“There’s a perception I did something wrong,” she said. “So that’s been a challenge in job hunting, but at least I’ve had a military job where I can pick up more things.”
Since filing her lawsuit, she has heard of other reservists who were forced to leave the military by their employers or fired outright. Many were forced to sign l documents waiving their right to sue.
“A lot of people have come forward after these cases and said, ‘They offered us a severance package and I don’t have a job, we didn’t have the financial cushion, we had to take the severance but sign away our rights to do it,’ ” she said.
Mitchell counts herself as fortunate because she has a law degree and several lawyer friends, so it was easy for her to get an attorney.
“Most people don’t have all those things,” she said. “If they’re pressured, they don’t have a choice.”■