When military calls

Businesses cope with their reservists being activated

May 31, 2006|By HANAH CHO | HANAH CHO,SUN REPORTER

As a major in the Maryland Army National Guard, countless missions have taken Thomas Beyard away from his job as Westminster's director of planning and public works. But none has lasted longer than a month.

This time around, however, he is leaving for an 18-month deployment in the Middle East. While Beyard prepares to leave next month, city officials are making plans to deal with his absence.

"I think the nature of the Guard - one weekend a month and two weeks of the year - it's changing," said Beyard, who has been part of the daily operations in Westminster for nearly two decades. "Now, my time is here. Many other people have had their time, second and third."

More than ever, employers in Maryland and across the country are coping with their workers' extended military leave as longer and multiple deployments have become common since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now, some Guard advocates are worried that the frequency of the call-ups - the largest since World War II - could hurt part-time soldiers' hiring chances or their careers. And President Bush's recent announcement of plans to send thousands of Guard troops to assist in border security could further affect the workplace, experts say.

"The concern about this border mission from some sides is that it's an increasing strain on the Guardsmen, who in some cases may have been deployed multiple times already and they've been settling back to their jobs," said Jesse Miller, an attorney at law firm Reed Smith's San Francisco office, who advises companies on their military-leave policies.

National Guard soldiers and reservists, many of whom signed up to take advantage of reduced college tuition, maintain civilian careers and serve the country when called for duty. Traditionally known as weekend warriors for training one weekend a month and two weeks a year, the Guard and Reserve have evolved over the years.

Companies are trying to strike a balance in being supportive of their mobilized workers while minimizing the impact of their absence in the workplace, human resources managers and experts say. Some employers are providing continuing retirement benefits and differential pay for workers on military leave. Westminster, for example, will pay Beyard the difference between his city and military salary while he's deployed.

In the meantime, companies are spreading the work of deployed employees among colleagues or hiring temporary workers.

Staffing changes, however, can be challenging, especially for small businesses and sole proprietors, workplace experts say.

"The biggest one has been the [worker] shortage impacting certain areas," said Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management.

"I haven't heard employers, medium or large, say that they're going out of business. You've heard this in small business areas: the person who runs the entity or one or two key [people] are out," Aitken said.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act - passed in 1994 after the 1991 Persian Gulf War - protects individuals against job loss because of military service and prohibits discrimination against employees or job candidates with military experience or anticipated service.

The U.S. Department of Labor has received about 6,000 complaints alleging the law's violations since the Sept. 11 deployments. But compared with one in 54 demobilized troops who filed work-related complaints during Operation Desert Storm, the rate has dropped to one in 81 during the war on terror, according to the labor agency.

Still, some are raising concerns that employers may become more hesitant to hire reservists and Guard members, fearful of endless tours. Since Sept. 11, about 497,000 Air and Army National Guard members have been called up for active duty in the global war on terror, according to the National Guard Bureau.

"It's human nature for Guardsmen and reservists to be concerned about that. In 2006, it isn't correct or right or politically correct to discriminate against somebody because of their involvement in the Guard or Reserve," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, which represents 45,000 current and former Army and Air National Guard officers.

"But that's not to say it doesn't go on, which concerns Guard leaders and certainly us. That potential exists."

Employers have long valued military experience as a plus in hiring and that practice has not changed, human resource managers say.

National Guard officials say employers have been generally supportive of the troops, and many companies have gone beyond the requirements of the federal law to offer additional benefits.

"Without their support, we wouldn't be able to do the things our country is doing," said Maj. Charles Kohler, public affairs officer for the Maryland National Guard. "These employers play a vital role in national security."

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