On The Homefront

Employers of men and women on military leave do more than just tie a yellow ribbon.

welscoBrave men and women from across the nation toil in its defense every day. Many of them are not career military: They are members of the Reserves and the National Guard who get called away from their civilian lives—and civilian jobs—to perform military duties. But what happens at the companies they’ve temporarily left behind while they’re in the service of Uncle Sam?

It’s a situation with which many GAWDA members are all too familiar.

USERRA and Reemployment
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994 protects reemployment rights for veterans and members of the National Guard and the Reserves. If employees are called up for military duty, they retain reemployment rights for five years, and must be reemployed in the job they would have attained if they had not been absent for military service (or a like position), with the same seniority, pay and other benefits they would be entitled to if they had never left (commonly referred to as the “escalator principle”).

What this means in practice is that oftentimes employers end up hiring temporary help or finding ways to distribute the responsibilities of an employee performing military service among other employees, so that the employee’s position is still available when he or she comes back home.

At Praxair, Inc. (Danbury, CT), the decision depends on the length of the employee’s absence. “In some cases, we do hire temporary replacements,” says John Van Devender, communications manager.

When an employee at South Jersey Welding Supply (Vineland, NJ) was called up for active duty in Iraq in 2004, the company made do by distributing his duties among other employees, but did not hire a temp to replace him during his absence. While it can be tough for any company to cope with the protracted absence of an employee, President Robert Thornton Jr. points out, it may be especially so for a small company that doesn’t have much leeway to move people around. “The employee had worked for us part time while he was in high school, and at the time he was called up, he had just joined the company full time and was in training,” says Thornton. “We transferred people between stores until he came back, and everybody was willing to pitch in.”

praxair

Praxair Distribution, Inc. President Wayne Yakich (center) welcomes home U.S. Army Motor Pool Specialist Tina Taylor (right) from Kuwait. Taylor is a production supervisor in Austin, Texas.

“We’ve had two or three employees who’ve been called up for military duty at different times, and we try to have other employees fill in while they’re away,” says Welsco (North Little Rock, AR) CEO Angela Harrison. When the company’s vice president of sales for its Western Division was called up for active duty and spent two months in Iraq, however, that presented a special challenge. “We have 16 locations, and he is responsible for over half those locations,” explains Harrison. “I was very fortunate to have our other vice presidents. Two of them filled in with his territory. Luckily, we knew about two months beforehand that he was going to be shipped out, so there was time to prepare.”

Airgas NCN (Sacramento, CA) recently had two associates called up for active duty. One has returned to Airgas; the other is still serving in Iraq. “While employees are serving in the military, their positions are filled by temporary employees, and their jobs are waiting for them when they get back,” says Regional President Jim McCarthy. “However, we also were able to make room for the person who filled in for our employee who recently returned from military service. He’d had several months of training while working as a temporary, so it worked out to our advantage.”

It’s never easy to manage when an employee is on leave for weeks or months. But what about years? That was the situation at Middlesex Gases & Technologies (Everett, MA) when one of the company’s store managers was called up for active duty in the months following 9/11. He returned in February 2006. “There was a lot of internal juggling,” says President and CEO Bo Martin. “We moved some people around and hired additional help in the meantime.” Under USERRA, Middlesex is required to provide a returning employee with the same or similar position with the company that he would have achieved if he hadn’t been away. But with a manager absent for over four years, that could have been a major challenge. Luckily, though, the employee’s return came at a fortuitous time. “We opened a new store in Rhode Island in May, so he is manning that,” says Martin. “It happened to be a situation where we would have needed to hire somebody if we hadn’t had someone internally, so the timing—for him and for us—was just right.”

To Pay or Not to Pay?
Although USERRA protects active duty employees’ reemployment rights, it does not require that employers continue to pay employees while they are away from their jobs. Some GAWDA members continue to pay employees on military leave; others do not. For many, the decision depends on the level of the employee’s military pay, or rests on the employee’s own wishes.

“Our policy is to pay the difference between the employee’s paycheck and his or her military pay for up to six months after activated,” says Airgas Great Lakes (Cleveland, OH) Regional President Michael Ziegler. “We also keep their insurance for them, although the premium still comes out of their paycheck.”

Northeast Gas Technologies (Albany, NY) has one employee in the Reserves who has been called away to report for his annual two-week Reserve duty, but no one has ever been called up to active duty. Nevertheless, the company has a policy in place should such a situation arise. “If the military is compensating the employee less than what their salary with us would be, we would make up the difference,” says General Manager Brenda McHarg. “But if their military compensation is greater than or equal to what our compensation would be for that time, they would get only their salary from the military.”

“When our employee goes for his two-week Reserve duty during the summer, we make up the difference between his pay here at South Jersey Welding Supply and what he receives from the military,” says Thornton. “But we did not do that when he went on active duty.” When Thornton spoke with him about the pay and benefits situation, the employee responded that he had everything he needed from the military, so there was no need for South Jersey Welding Supply to supplement his income or continue to provide his health insurance. “He’s a young, single, independent guy, so he wasn’t concerned about it,” explains Thornton. “If there’d been a family or kids in the picture, we would have continued his medical coverage for him so there wouldn’t have been any coverage problems.”

Indiana Oxygen

After 9/11 Bryon Russell re-enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and soon found himself serving in the Middle Eastern theater attached to the 379th Air Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron based in Qatar as an F-18 Weapons Load Crew Chief. Instead of loading compressed industrial gas cylinders on the warehouse dock, he was loading firepower. The 379th flew daily bombing missions into central Iraq in support of the coalition forces. Before loading this cruise missile, Senior Airman Russell sent a message to his colleagues back home at Indiana Oxygen.

Middlesex Gases & Technologies offered to make up any shortfall between its employee’s military pay and his regular pay from the company. “He told us the government pay actually was going to be more than what he would be paid here at Middlesex, so we did not pay him while he was away, although we were willing to,” says Treasurer Robert Chmielorz. “We also offered to keep him on our medical plan if he wished, but he had a better deal with the government, so he opted to go with that.”

A special military leave policy is in place at Praxair. “We provide up to 12 months pay and benefits continuation for Reservists and National Guard personnel who are called to active duty during a national crisis or an emergency,” says Van Devender.

Welsco also continues to provide an employee’s full salary and benefits while he or she is away on military leave. “It’s as if they’re not even gone,” says Harrison. “We believe in supporting their efforts in the military, so we don’t do anything differently.”

Homecoming
Undoubtedly, it can be tough for an employee in the military to readjust to civilian life after being released from active duty. The Department of Defense provides “pre-separation counseling” to aid in the readjustment period. But employers can assist in their own ways to help their returning employees transition back into the civilian workforce and let them know their efforts on behalf of the nation’s defense are appreciated.

After a four-year absence, a transition period was necessary for Middlesex Gases & Technologies’ returning store manager. “When he came back in February, we placed him at an existing filling facility,” says Martin. “That gave him a couple of months to work with some good people before the opening of the Rhode Island store, and it gave him time to re-familiarize himself with the computer system and everything else involved in the job.”

When Welsco’s vice president of sales returned from active duty, a number of employees gathered at Fort Smith to welcome him back with a huge banner. “Even though we have 110 employees, we still consider all of them to be family,” Harrison says. It wasn’t necessary to provide him with any additional time for readjustment, Harrison says, because “he was ready to come back.”

“This was the first time we’d encountered somebody going on active duty, let alone to a war zone, so everyone at South Jersey Welding Supply was very supportive,” says Thornton. “I think they took a little pride in the fact that one of our employees was over there, and everybody was concerned about him.” The company maintained e-mail contact with him while he was in Iraq, and Thornton posted the missives on the bulletin board, so everyone could read about what their coworker was doing. “We were glad he came back with no problems,” says Thornton. “And because he’d been in learning mode to begin with before he left for Iraq, he went right back into the flow of things very easily.”

Although having an employee called up for active duty can put a strain on any company’s resources, distributors agree that it’s vitally important to be as supportive as possible. After all, doing so not only shows loyalty to a valued employee, it also helps that employee better perform his or her duties in the military and in our industry—both of which have an important role in keeping our nation strong.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association