Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Employers bolster call-up benefits for reservists

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

David Henrich hugs his son Matthew as Matthew prepares to depart for Fort Campbell with the 478th Engineer Battalion Army Reserve from Fort Thomas.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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More and more units such as the 478th Engineer Battalion Army Reserve of Fort Thomas are being called to active duty to prepare for a potential war with Iraq - nearly 112,000 reservists and National Guard members have been pulled from their civilian jobs so far. And more companies and public agencies, both in the Tristate and across the country, are sending their employees away with more than just a pat on the back.

Many employers are going beyond legal requirements to increase benefits and pay for those called to active duty, such as those in the 478th, which pulled out for Fort Campbell on Monday.

For example, Cincinnati-based grocery giant Kroger is among those that have recently enhanced their policies; it extended the time it will pay the difference between a reservist's military and civilian pay from three to six months.

Why are such shifts in policy occurring? The reasons range from pure post-Sept. 11 patriotism to simply wanting to keep employees focused on returning to their jobs without worrying about their financial situations.

Peggy Cordray (right) and Terry Muennich cry during a departure ceremony at the Fort Thomas Reserve Center.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Yet the increased support from employers isn't just economic. Some companies are making it a point to keep in touch with workers on active duty - to boost their morale and keep them abreast of what's going on back at the office.

Meanwhile, human-resource experts say bosses have grown better at dealing with the loss of key employees who are in the reserves or National Guard for months at a time. That's crucial, because the military is relying on the reserves more frequently - and workers are spending longer periods of time on duty once called away from home and the office.

Employer support for reserve and Guard members "certainly has grown dramatically," said Jay Spiegel, executive director of the Washington-based Reserve Officers Association, which advocates for reservists. "A lot of it came after Sept. 11, but we had already seen a trend prior to that."

"While we don't have hard data comparing what it was like in Desert Storm compared with what it is now, anecdotally, there appears to be a significant increase in benefits," said Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking. "We couldn't win the war against terrorism without such support."

The Reserve Officers Association recently conducted a survey of Fortune 500 companies about their military leave policies. Of the 154 respondents, nine companies paid the difference between military pay and their own pay for the duration of the worker's employment - several companies even paid full salary up to a year. Another 57 companies paid the difference for between six to 12 months.

Federal law requires only that companies or public agencies hold the reservist's position open for the duration of their deployment and that they get their same pay when they return. Those on active duty receive health benefits from the military, but in many cases, military pay is far below that of the private or even other public sector jobs.

An Enquirer survey of Greater Cincinnati companies found that many had some sort of differential pay policies.

Procter & Gamble, for example, makes up the difference between an employee's military and regular pay for 18 months. Chiquita Brands International gives reservists, who are being paid by the government, their full pay for 30 days. Cincinnati Bell makes up the pay difference for three monthsfor employees with a year of service; the differential is extended for those with more years at Bell.

Many government agencies also increased their pay benefits after the Sept. 11 attacks. Both the state of Ohio and Hamilton County, for example, make up the pay differential, adding the benefit during the call up for Operation Enduring Freedom.

"It saved the day the last time I went away," said Karl Kadon, the chief assistant for Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen.

Kadon, 44, who has five children, normally makes $95,000 annually but makes $57,000 a year as a major when on active duty. He is being recalled after serving nearly a year in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, and expects to be activated this week. .

"I'm certainly glad it's in place for good this time," Kadon said, referring to the county's policies.

Financial worries

Of course, some companies are financially strapped and will not cover the difference in pay, such as Erlanger-based regional airline Comair and its parent Delta Air Lines, which lost more than $1 billion last year. Yet Comair and Delta continue to offer normal medical and savings plan benefits to reservists and their dependants. The airlines also continue to offer travel benefits to the reservists' families.

There are some who can fall through the cracks, however, especially owners of a small business or other professionals, such as lawyers, doctors and dentists who aren't part of a large practice.

There were several stories of such individuals declaring bankruptcy after Desert Storm, a trend that could resurface if the war in Iraq turns into policing the aftermath - much like the situation in the Balkans, where active reservists are still deployed.

"We could also see employers looking for some relief and weaken the protections if this becomes a protracted issue in Iraq," the reserve association's Spiegel said.

Despite the general improvement in how employers are treating reservists, it isn't universal.

The U.S. Department of Labor received 1,195 reservist grievances in 2002, up from 895 in 2001.

And the National Committee for Employers Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department agency that mediates reservists disputes with employers, handled 1,125 cases of reservists laid off in connection with their military duty last year, up from 843 in 2001.

Some employers still don't understand what the reservists do, especially if they involved with homeland security and are not sent overseas, experts say.

"It was easy when the bombs were falling you saw soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan," said Col. Alan Smith, director of ombudsman services for the national committee. "It might be difficult to send an employee `to war' and you see them at the grocery store."

Better planning

Todd Uterstaedt, himself an Army reservist but also vice president of organizational consulting services for the Blue Ash firm Right Management Consultants, says companies have become more savvy at dealing with reservists before they are called up - and while they're away.

"We as a company stress succession planning, and not just having one backup to the person, but to divide that person's knowledge among a group of others," Uterstaedt said. "This can be an issue when a company has downsized. But we've seen a greater interest in this, and that is a good indicator that companies are beginning to think about this."

Uterstaedt also said that e-mail has made it possible for employees to keep in touch with the office, and vice versa, and that both sides are taking advantage.

"Those people will still write home as much as they normally would have, but this gives them an opportunity to stick their head in and keep up a little with what's going on," he said, saying he also advises companies and workers to use military duty as a way to gain new job skills, if possible.

One local company that makes it easy for on-duty employees to stay in touch is Cinergy. Employees can get into their corporate e-mail and other information through a portal in the utility's Web site.

Other companies large and small are using the Internet in similar ways nationally.

Personal touch

Finally, there is the pat-on-the-back factor. Many companies and agencies are making a big deal when a reservist is called up, and plan to keep in touch personally and send care packages and the like.

As she prepared to be activated to the National Guard this week, Jamie McCall took one encouraging phone call or e-mail after another from her co-workers at Fifth Third Bank - which does offer some benefits to active reservists but does not provide differential pay. (Reservists do retain 401(k) and profit sharing, and their health and dental insurance can be extended.)

But one phone call grabbed her attention. It came from the bank's president and chief executive officer George A. Schaefer Jr., himself a West Point graduate and a Vietnam veteran.

"He told me if there was anything he could do, let him know," said McCall, 25, a retail human resources coordinator who was called up to the National Guard last week - she's been a member for five years.

She said that Schaefer's words were perhaps the most supportive of all, making her feel like she would be welcome when she came back.

"I've been preparing for this for the past few years ... and I certainly take a lot of pride in what I do."

Enquirer reporters Randy Tucker, Cindy Kranz, Jeff McKinney, Mike Boyer, Sherry Turco, John Eckberg, Cliff Peale, Jim Hannah, Jane Prendergast and Erica Solvig surveyed employers for this report, as did Enquirer contributor David Eck. Additional material came from USA Today and the Boston Globe.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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