Businesses suffer as they lose key workers to gulf duty WAR IN THE GULF Absences cause strain in workplace


When the 200th Military Police Company of Salisbury left in December for the Persian Gulf, its members took gas masks, chemical-warfare suits, M-16 rifles -- and Mike Davis' right-hand man.

Before December, Bryan D. Crockett was vice president of finance for Marshall Management Inc., a Salisbury-based hotel-management company. Mr. Crockett handled the company's centralized accounting, and Mr. Davis, its treasurer, took care of internal audits.

These days, however, Mr. Crockett is Sergeant Crockett, in charge of ordering and distributing food for the 200th, a unit of the Maryland National Guard assigned to prisoner-of-war camps in eastern Saudi Arabia. Back home, Mr. Davis is handling the equivalent of two jobs.

"I'm getting beat up," he says.

When the first nationwide call for reservists and the National Guard went out in November, most companies expected eligible employees to be gone 90 days, with a possible extension of three months at the most.

Recently, however, as the war in the gulf lengthened, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was authorized to keep already activated reservists and National Guardsmen on duty as long as 12 months.

Now companies that once planned to plug the gaps with temporary employees while regular employees were away a few months are adjusting to the prospect of being short-handed for a year or more.

Most are responding to the crisis supportively. They provide medical benefits for activated employees' families and, in some cases, offer to pay the difference between an employee's military salary and civilian salary for up to two years.

But the strain is taking a toll in the workplace. "How do you replace a guy who's been with you for 10 years with a temporary? You can't. You just can't," Mr. Davis said.

Many employers "originally looked at their policies toward reservists as a '90-day solution.' Now they're having to go back and rethink things," said Mark J. Meade, a benefit consultant with C & B Consulting/Herget Division in Baltimore.

Federal law requires an employer to hold a reservist-employee's job open, but many companies decided when the first call-ups were announced to continue paying insurance benefits and salary differentials, too, Mr. Meade said.

Last month, for example, the Reserve Officers' Association of the United States surveyed 155 Fortune 500 companies and found that 133 were supplementing reservist- employees' military pay in some fashion.

Buck Consultants, a New York-based employee benefits and compensation consulting firm, also found that a majority of the 182 large employers it surveyed nationwide were continuing medical coverage for reservists and their families.

Some companies are extending such policies. New York-based AT&T; said last week that it would double the period in which it will pay salary differentials to nearly 200 employees on duty in the Persian Gulf. Employees will be eligible for anywhere from 26 to 52 weeks of differential pay depending on their length of service, the company said. In Detroit, General Motors said it would extend salary differentials for 300 employees for up to six months.

Closer to home, Westvaco Corp., which operates a paper mill in Luke, Md., announced last week that it would extend salary differentials and continue health-care benefits for employees on active duty in the gulf for up to three months.

But many smaller employers will not be able to follow suit, Mr. Meade predicted. "Realistically, it's very expensive for an employer to do something like that," he said.

When National Guard Spc. Bridget Novak left her position as secretary-receptionist for Lewis & Rode, a small accounting firm in Owings Mills, in November, she asked only that the firm continue her life insurance policy, said Georgina Page, the office manager.

"Bridget felt that since her family would be entitled to the military's medical benefits, they wouldn't need medical insurance. But she wanted us to keep her life insurance plan so that if something happened to her there would be something for herson," Mrs. Page said.

After Mrs. Novak went to Saudi Arabia with the 290th Military Police Company, the firm hired a young woman to fill in for her, Mrs. Page said. With tax season beginning, training the newcomer "put a lot of strain on us," she admitted.

"But Bridget knows us well enough to know that when shcomes back there will be a job for her," Mrs. Page added. "We all really do miss her and we wouldn't want her to think any other way."

When the employee also is the employer the financial strain of a reserve call-up is magnified a hundredfold.

"I have my own practice in Fairfax -- or at least I did five months ago," said Maj. James F. Hurd, a lawyer from Fairfax County, Va., whose Army Reserve unit was activated in August.

Colleagues who are lawyers are keeping track of his cases while he is assigned to the U.S. Army Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, N.J., Maj. Hurd said. But some matters, particularly those in criminal court, just won't wait for his return. That work will simply have to be handed over to another lawyer, he said.

Will he have a job when he returns? "I'll always have a job," Major Hurd said. "Whether I can make a living at it is another question."

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