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As Md. reservists get the call, workplace may feel the pinch

The Baltimore Sun

When Navy reservist David Lindsey was called up to go to Iraq, his employer gave him extra vacation time and offered to pay the difference if his military salary was less than his civilian pay.

While he was away, his bosses at Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative made sure that he routinely received care packages filled with soup and cans of coffee, which made him the envy of his unit. The company re-shuffled staff to temporarily fill his job during his absence, then promoted him soon after his return in 2005.

"They were very caring," said Lindsey, 44, a general foreman in Prince Frederick. "I do know a couple people who, when they got back, didn't have a job due to layoffs or something else. ... I got a welcome-back party."

As the Maryland National Guard sends an additional 1,300 soldiers to Iraq - about 1,200 guardsmen and military reservists from Maryland are on active duty - private and public employers that have part-time service members on their payrolls are trying to figure out how best to cope.

Small companies and departments are obviously affected the most by such departures, but even larger ones often have to juggle and reorganize to compensate for absences. And the transition can, at times, be bumpy - for guardsmen, reservists and their employers.

Approximately 5,900 have served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, said 1st Lt. Wayde Minami, a Guard spokesman.

In the latest round of call-ups, the Maryland Guard tried to avoid "gutting" any given region, industry or organization, said Army Capt. Randy Short, an Iraq-bound spokesman for the state brigade.

"There was no place that we felt we would leave unable to do their thing," Short said. "We didn't hear that from anybody."

Nonetheless, if a business is small or a soldier is self-employed, an absence can have onerous consequences, said Christine Wormuth, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"Really, the best they can do is plan ahead," she said. "In some cases, mobilization for those people can literally mean that the business goes out of business."

And even large companies can feel the pain of the departures, especially if a missing employee has a difficult-to-fill position.

A nationwide survey released in May by the Alexandria-based Society for Human Resource Management showed that only 2 percent of human resources professionals said deployment of employees had had a large impact on business operations in the past year. Ten percent saw "some impact," 44 percent saw "slight impact" and 44 percent saw "no impact at all." About 300 people were surveyed.

At Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, five of its 450 employees have been deployed since 2001, including one scheduled to depart soon. It's a tiny number, but Joe Slater, the president and chief executive officer, says he notices. With the head of the company's security and disaster program in Africa, "I am personally discomfited," Slater said. "Those are skills that are quite frankly hard to substitute for on a short-term basis. ... We'll manage while he's away, but I'll be glad when he's back."

In the public sector, some local police forces have had multiple hits, including the Annapolis Police Department. About six officers have served overseas since 2001, and three more were scheduled to be deployed this month, said spokesman Hal Dalton. To cover for the absences, administrators change schedules or assignments or, if necessary, pay overtime.

"You can't say it doesn't have an effect, because they are employees we don't have the service of," Dalton said. "Someone has to pick up the slack."

Dalton has been personally affected by the in-house shuffle. Though he has been off the streets for a number of years, last summer he went back to patrol for two months to fill in for an officer completing a tour of duty. He didn't mind, he said.

"We support the officers who are deployed. ... We're proud of what they're doing and happy to support the country," Dalton said. "We'd rather have them here, but when we hired them, we knew they had these obligations. We're not complaining."

Large police forces can usually absorb the temporary loss of a few officers without too much disruption, said John Firman, director of research at the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police, but about 12,000 of the nation's 18,000-plus law enforcement agencies have fewer than 25 sworn officers. An absence of even one person can have a direct effect on the ability to patrol, he said.

As the next group of 1,300 guardsmen heads overseas, Firman said, "what we're watching closely is where agencies are having a hard time meeting their basic policing needs."

Such concerns echo the mounting worry of elected officials that the strain of war is undermining the ability of the National Guard and military reserves to serve domestically in crises such as the destructive tornado that recently leveled a Kansas town.

Gov. Martin O'Malley recentlycomplained that the continuing deployment of Maryland guardsmen has left the state short on reserves and equipment. Also, an adjutant general said recently that because of call-ups, the Maryland Guard didn't have enough personnel to secure the military base that houses the state's Emergency Management Agency. In May, Rep. Christopher P. Carney, a Pennsylvania Democrat, held a hearing to look into the National Guard's readiness to respond to domestic emergencies.

But while the call-ups can be disruptive, service members are protected by law from harassment or discrimination related to their military duties. They must be given time off for training or to deploy. When they return from active duty, their employers are required to reinstall them in their jobs or equivalent positions. (They are not, however, protected from mass, company-wide layoffs.)

"The rule of thumb is that the employer should treat individuals as if they had not been absent," said Col Ben Jablecki, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Pentagon agency that helps smooth relations between service members and employers.

The agency resolves about 95 percent of disputes through mediation. More contentious cases are forwarded to the U.S. Department of Labor or, ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice for civil prosecution.

As the Iraq war continues, more employers have become aware of the rules governing their deployed workers, but the number of complaints is still significantly higher than it was in 2001, largely because more soldiers have been deployed, said ESGH spokesman Rob Palmer. In 2006, 92 Marylanders registered complaints with the agency compared with 145 in 2005 and 161 in 2004. Nationwide, the agency handled 3,152 complaints in 2006.

Sgt. Robert Gluck, a retention office manager with the Maryland Air National Guard, recounted the case of a 19-year-old woman who was fired from a job at a Baltimore County printing company after joining the Maryland Air National Guard in May 2006. The case ultimately ended up at the Department of Justice - the woman received $5,000 in lost wages and the company lost government contracts.

Fred Samuelson said that during his tenure as an ombudsman for the Pentagon agency in Maryland, he helped a former employee at Ford Motor Co. win $100,000 in severance pay. The man had unlawfully been denied re-employment after returning from active duty and found another job. Some time later, a number of his former colleagues were laid off and given $100,000 each in severance pay - money the service member believed he also deserved. Ultimately - after Samuelson intervened - Ford agreed.

But such cases are relatively rare, and some employers are quite generous to workers who are guardsmen or reservists. Though it is not required, many pay the difference if the employee earns less in the military. Some extend health benefits to deployed soldiers and their families.

To ease the transition, the Maryland State Police temporarily assigns a trooper to help departing or returning service members, said spokesman Newell Frist. Stella Miller, who owns a contracting company in Edgewood, felt it was her duty to assist her employee whose husband was deployed by giving her extra time off.

Sgt. Michael Dann, a car salesman and member of the Maryland National Guard, described his civilian bosses as accommodating and gracious. After he found out he was heading to Iraq, they threw him a going-away party and announced his deployment in the company newsletter.

The owner also gave him some unsolicited, fatherly advice. Don't make your supply sergeant mad, he said. Keep your head down. Make sure to write your family.

Then he said, "I don't want you to even think about whether you have your job. It's here."

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