Holes in the work force

Employees off to war by the thousands leave critical gaps in the ranks at work

Reservist Call-ups

September 19, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

By day, Todd Stewart commands a Maryland National Guard anti-tank battalion that has been assigned to keep watch over sensitive military sites in the United States. By night, he answers e-mail from customers, catches up on paperwork and generally does what he can to keep his Elkton State Farm Insurance agency running in his absence.

"It's tough to keep on top of it all if you're not there," said Stewart, whose unit was deployed in March to take the place of active-duty military personnel sent overseas to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I burn the midnight oil."

Stewart holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and is one of the 424,765 National Guard and Reserve soldiers nationwide who have been called up for duty by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. They make up 47 percent of the approximately 140,000 troops in Iraq, making them an increasingly critical component of the nation's military.

But to the employers and small businesses they have left behind, they are often just as critical. With deployments lasting up to a year or longer, everything from airlines and small manufacturing plants to municipal fire and police departments find they are burdened with doing the same amount of work with fewer people.

In many cases, employees return to their old jobs only to be called up a second time.

While they express support for those called to duty, business leaders and lawmakers have complained that the multiple, open-ended deployments are taking an unknown toll on the economy and employers, who are required to hold jobs open for activated National Guard and Reserve members. Many have called on the Pentagon to re-evaluate its mobilization practices.

"We have no good information on the number of companies affected, the number of sole proprietorships closed, the number of overtime hours colleagues have put in to make up the work of a colleague who answered the call to serve," Jeffrey Crowe, who sits on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently told a House committee looking into the impact of military mobilizations.

The issue has been aired on the campaign trail as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry questions the Bush administration's military policies. Kerry has called Bush's extensive use of reserve troops a backdoor draft. Republicans counter that the nation's leaner, all-volunteer military is sufficient to meet the Pentagon's needs.

But for a small businessman like Todd Stewart, the pain of leaving behind family and friends is compounded by the potential financial blow that comes with military service.

New hire left

"You have to sell to maintain your income," he said of his insurance agency. "As good as my people are at the office, that always suffers a little bit."

Stewart, who was on active duty in Germany during the Cold War, hired an additional full-time worker and one part-time employee to help take care of his business for the year he expects to be gone. One of those new hires has since left, and Stewart is looking for a replacement.

The battalion commander spends much of his time in Aberdeen and Chestertown, which gives him an opportunity to check in at the office from time to time. His customers have been forgiving, he said.

"They understand we are at war and I am in the Guard," he said. "They realize that what I need to do is probably a greater need than their need to talk to me."

`A greater need'

Like Stewart, many entrepreneurial National Guard and Reserve members have business partners and employees who rely on them for their livelihoods.

Dr. Peter M. Tan, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Frederick, said he and his two partners lost income and nearly had to trim office staff during his 91-day deployment to the 396th Combat Support Hospital in Seattle last year.

When the call came, he had just 10 days' notice to notify his patients, get his business affairs in order and say goodbye to his wife and three children.

"Everything had to be put on hold, whether it was retirement plans or paying monthly bills," said Tan, who spent about 18 years in the Army Reserve. "The lifestyles of my partners were affected certainly because of what had happened to me. The corporation as a whole was affected, and it had a trickle-down effect."

When he got back, Tan, whose extended family has a long history of military service, realized another long deployment could put the practice in jeopardy. In January, he reluctantly resigned from the Army Reserve just 11 months shy of receiving full retirement benefits.

"Even those three months, it was financially quite unfortunate for all of us, and we needed to get some stabilization," he said.

After small business owners, the police and fire units in small communities have been hit the hardest by lengthy deployments. The emergency services tend to attract a large number of military personnel.

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