Firms help those called to serve

As the first wave of US military reservists and National Guard troops get called up to active duty, their current employers are gladly footing part of the bill.

The Defense Department has activated 14,318 reservists, but many more of the nation's 1.3 million part-time soldiers are soon expected to join them.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, more than 265,000 soldiers took steep pay cuts to do everything from fly fighter jets to treat the wounded.

Already, employers ranging from a BMW auto plant in South Carolina to defense contractor General Dynamics have pledged to make up the difference between military- and private-sector pay. And a range of firms - including PepsiCo and UPS - indicate that they have implemented "special military leave policies," or plan to do so, according to a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an international outplacement firm.

But with the economy spiraling downward and the prospect of a long fight ahead, it's unclear how long companies can afford such generosity.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against employees summoned for military service and provides them with extensive legal protections.

Employers must hold reservists' positions open for five years, and maintain benefits such as pension contributions throughout a soldier's absence. Employers also can't force employees to use up vacation time while on duty.

And once the employees return, employers must reinstate them at the seniority and rate of pay they would have received had they remained at the company. Veterans are also protected from terminations, including mass layoffs, within 180 days of their return.

Businesses that violate the provisions of the law - enacted in 1994 in the wake of the Gulf War - must refund back wages and pay steep damages.

"This could be a very expensive proposition for an employer that doesn't comport with the act," says William Perkins, a labor and employment attorney at the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw in New York City.

So far, companies throughout the country are going much further, says Lt. Col. Michael Lovitt of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), the Defense Department agency responsible for fielding employers' concerns. Colonel Lovitt says dozens of firms called to voluntarily extend benefits or compensation beyond what the law requires in the days after the first activation was announced.

General Dynamics and BMW both said they will make up the difference between a reservist's military and private pay for the first 12 months of their employees' active military service. During the Gulf War, General Dynamics covered the difference for 13 weeks, says General Dynamics spokesman Rob Doolittle.

UPS, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 reservists on staff, has also pledged to make up any compensation shortfalls. The shipping company also pledged to provide healthcare and life-insurance coverage for dependents of those workers called to serve.

Relatives of activated employees at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. - where two reservists were called up - will also have uninterrupted access to their company-provided healthcare.

"These special policies recognize the extremely important patriotic contributions of these employees and lessen the hardship on their families," says Steve Karr, R.J. Reynolds human resources director.

Some smaller firms and farms are already feeling the economic pinch. North Dakota farmers who usually harvest sugar beets this time of year are now serving in the 119th Fighter Wing, based in Fargo. "There's an immediate impact," said Master Sgt. David Somdahl of the North Dakota Air National Guard.

Before reporting to duty, newly mobilized soldiers have one to three days to put their affairs in order, including updating wills and delegating powers of attorney. For the first time, Sergeant Somdahl says, some activated soldiers' spouses face the challenge of balancing a checkbook or arranging child care by themselves.

Once they report to duty, Somdahl advises service members to keep in touch with employers as well as relatives - even if they can't tell them where they are. Employers or reservists and their relatives with questions about their rights or responsibilities can contact Defense Department mediators at 800-336-4590, or access the ESGR website (www.esgr.org).

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