Balancing Full-Time Job And Part-Time Soldiering

More US companies go the extra mile

When John Lanigan was ordered to duty after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Coast Guard Reserve commander departed for the Gulf reassured that his family and career were secure. In addition to guaranteeing his job and seniority, the company he works for, Schneider National, a Wisconsin trucking firm, made up the difference between his civilian and military pay.

For other reservists sent overseas, the firm has been even more benevolent - organizing volunteers to shovel workers' sidewalks and taking their children to movies. "When those people come back, they come back with a renewed sense of commitment to our company," says Mr. Lanigan.

With the country's 1.3 million part-time soldiers being called up more frequently than at any time during the cold war, Schneider National's actions are emblematic of a deeply rooted ethic among corporations to take care of workers - and in some cases their families - while they serve their country, often in remote areas of the globe.

Though US companies are required to give returning soldiers their jobs back, or similar ones, many go beyond the dictates of the law to maintain workers' benefits and take other actions to smooth their return. Schneider National, which recently won a Pentagon award for its actions, organizes volunteers to take workers' families out to dinner while they are away. It also sent Lanigan cassette tapes so he could keep up with corporate developments from the Persian Gulf.

The policies represent a way for companies to boost employee morale and make a contribution to the nation's defense. For the Reservists and National Guardsmen, it makes it easier to balance career and military obligations at a time when more are being sent overseas and for longer periods of time. "The story is there is still overwhelming support [from corporations]," says Deborah Lee, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

During the cold war, the part-time military was the force of last resort in case hostilities erupted in Europe with the former Soviet Union. Only a handful of reserves were ever mobilized for duty abroad. But that changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

More citizen-soldiers

Beginning with the 1991 Gulf war, the part-time military found itself increasingly called on for missions once performed exclusively by active-duty troops. One reason was post-cold-war budget cuts that have trimmed regular forces from 2.3 million to about 1.4 million. Another is that the growing number of international peacekeeping operations and other "nontraditional" missions the US has been taking on require specialized skills, such as psychological operations and civil affairs, that have been concentrated in the part-time military.

Several factors have made the new workload even heavier. The part-time military itself has been hit by budget cuts that have forced it to shed some 200,000 personnel. Furthermore, the increasing use of reserves and guard abroad requires that units now participate in regular war games with US allies and in NATO exercises with ex-communist Eastern European troops.

As a result, many part-time soldiers are in uniform for more than the required 39 days a year. More than 260,000 served during Operation Desert Storm. More recently in excess of 20,000 reservists and guard have been sent to places like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Sinai or have served in support functions in the US.

But despite the huge rise in "operational tempo," there are no indications that employers are growing indignant over the holes caused in their work forces. Says an Army Reserve commander whose unit is about to ship out to Bosnia: "I'm finding a little bit to my surprise that employers are dutifully supporting my soldiers."

His observation is in line with a survey of Fortune 500 companies conducted yearly by the Reserve Officers Association of the United States. The 1996 edition found that the majority go beyond the legal requirement of preserving the jobs of their part-time soldiers. Most pay salary differentials and maintain their insurance benefits, although almost all set time limits. A handful, including Citicorp and Schering-Plough Corp., continue paying full salaries for the duration of call-ups.

Pentagon officials admit it is harder for small firms and the self-employed to bear the burdens of higher mobilizations, and they are trying to help. The Pentagon last summer won congressional approval of a bill allowing part-time soldiers to buy "mobilization insurance," which covers income losses. It is now pushing a proposal to create tax breaks for small businesses that employ guard and reserves.

Employers can also bring their concerns to a special Pentagon committee that finds ways around mobilization problems.

But while the overall picture is rosy, some see thorns. Employers' attitudes could begin to change amid expectations that the government will make greater use of citizen-soldiers in the face of budget constraints and further cuts in active forces. "We feel there is a threat hanging out here. It could reach a point where the employers are going to throw up their hands," says Alexander Gerry of the Reserve Officers Association, in Washington.

Such concerns are not groundless. More than 1,200 reservists have filled complaints with the Labor Department every year since 1993 alleging illegal termination from their jobs. In all, more than 100 cases have been determined to be legitimate and sent to federal attorneys.

Most complaints received by the Labor Department's Veterans Employment and Training Service involve private employers. Dozens have also been lodged against the federal government, the very entity that asks the part-time military to put their lives on the line. Of the 1,270 complaints brought this year, 113 were filed by state and federal government workers.

Ms. Lee says the statistics provide just part of the picture. She says many reservists privately complain to her and other officials of being pressured by supervisors to restrict or quit their military activities, but never seek formal redress for fear of retaliation.

Balky bosses

"What you frequently find is that it is not a top-level person doing this. It is a front-line supervisor," Lee says. Pentagon officials contend that the most troublesome federal agency is the US Bureau of Prisons. The bureau failed to respond to a request to discuss its policies.

"It's amazing that a federal agency can be so inflexible," says Col. Jim Chalaire, who acts as a liaison between the Defense Department and employers.

The Pentagon and Labor Department are currently battling the bureau on behalf of Joseph Monsavais, a police officer in the Air Force Reserve who was fired as a guard from a federal prison in Three Rivers, Texas. Mr. Monsavais, a Marine Corps veteran, says he gave his bosses his annual training schedule when he was hired in May 1994 and was told his reserve activities would be no problem. But on returning to work after his second training weekend, he was accused of taking time off without notice and fired.

Pentagon officials say the bureau violated several federal laws, including one requiring restoration of reservists' jobs on return from active duty and another giving federal employees 15 days of paid leave per year for military service.

The case has been turned over to the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles personnel complaints by federal civilian workers. Meanwhile, Monsavais is unable to pursue his dream of a law-enforcement career because of the "black mark on my record."

"It's been hard," says Monsavais, who is married and has a child. "People began knocking on my door to get me to pay bills. [My wife] started putting pressure on me to leave the reserves, but I like what I do."

While Monsavais has filed the only formal complaint against the bureau, Pentagon officials and prison union representatives say his treatment is emblematic of the general attitude the agency takes toward the part-time military. The American Federation of Government Employees is now preparing a formal grievance alleging discrimination on behalf of the 2,750 reservists and guard members who work at federal prisons.

Among other illegal practices, a union official alleges, the bureau deducts training weekends from reservists' regular leave or forces them to take unpaid leaves. But other employees are allowed to compete in sports contests on behalf of the bureau without losing vacation time.

Union locals nationwide also complain that supervisors routinely tell reservists and guard members that they can pursue only one career. As a result, he says, the number of reservists working for the bureau "is dropping drastically."

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