Employers of men and women on military leave do more than just tie a yellow ribbon.
Brave 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 businesses like material handling distributorships that they’ve temporarily left behind while they’re in the service of Uncle Sam?
It’s a situation with which many MHEDA 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”). USERRA does not require that employers continue to pay employees while they are away from their jobs.
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 Great Eastern Equipment Company (Clifton, NJ), the work is being spread around while a company salesman is on a special operations mission. President Robert R. Bogle says that every employee just has to contribute a little extra to make up the difference. “Each of us took a different section of coverage to fill in. Everyone has to do a little bit more, but we’re all very proud of our country and the men and women who are brave enough to volunteer to serve. That’s why everybody here is willing to pitch in and work a little harder to get things done until he gets back.”
A different approach was taken in the absence of a technician at Fallsway Equipment Company (Akron, OH), where Youngstown Branch Manager Don Fisher says, “Our business has expanded and we’ve hired five new technicians in the last few months. We’re in a growing spurt right now, so when he comes back, it’s just one less technician I need to hire.”
Morrison Industrial Equipment (Grand Rapids, MI) President Roger Troost handled the deployment of three employees differently for each. “One person was a branch manager, so we had to move another person into that role while he was gone. We needed to rearrange other managers to fill in that position. In fact, a branch manager trainee stepped into the position for a number of months and then ended up moving on to a different location as branch manager.” The second deployed worker was a technician in the new truck prep department, so an additional person was hired to replace him. The third person has been called to duty three times since the war in Iraq began. The first two times he was a truck driver, and then was promoted to the parts department, only to be called to duty again in May. An existing employee with a commercial driver’s license was able to fulfill the required duties of the job.
Sometimes, a supervisor takes over while the employee is actively serving. Such is the case at Modern Group (Bristol, PA), where a technician was deployed before Joel Sweitzer was named assistant service manager of the York, Pennsylvania, branch. “We reassigned different technicians to his customers. The impact of that is somewhat hard to judge because we were hiring additional techs anyway. We covered his workload with who we had, along with the new ones. It was just a normal progression for us.”
The biggest difference internally is an obvious one—there is one fewer person to handle the workload. “When you have a set number of road techs and now you have one fewer, obviously you don’t have that billable time. Everybody is covering it, but you don’t necessarily pick up all those hours right away until you put another tech on,” Sweitzer says.
“It hurts anytime somebody leaves,” Fisher says. “In our case, this is our mechanic’s second deployment. He came back to work the first time in November 2004 and then was re-called just a few weeks later, in January 2005. So it did put us in a little bit of a bind because he is a good guy and a good mechanic.”
For many employees, service technicians and salespeople in particular, the rapport they develop with customers is an enormous part of their job. When these workers are called to military duty, it can upset the established relationship with a customer, which can be problematic if not handled correctly.
“You can hire somebody else to fill the void, but that person won’t have the same relationship with the customer,” says Fallsway’s Fisher. “That takes time to build. When you have someone who has built the relationship, who knows the people and who the customers like, that’s a hard thing to replace.”
Sweitzer agrees, noting that communicating with customers is the most important thing. “Impact-wise we made it as seamless for our customers as we could. Most of them knew that their regular mechanic had been sent overseas, and it was pretty amazing to see the number who called in to ask about him. It was clear that he had a very good rapport with his customers. When he returned, we reassigned to him most every customer he previously had.”
Employers did notice that having an employee in the service seemed to foster better morale among the staff. According to Troost, “It really created camaraderie as branches and people sent packages to the employees when they were overseas. It was nice to see our employees give support to other employees. I know they really appreciated getting those care packages.”
Modern Group employees responded similarly. “It’s a good group and they were concerned. As soon as anybody heard any news, they would put the word around to let people know he was fine. They were always glad to hear from him and were glad when he got back.”
Undoubtedly, it can be tough for an employee in the military to readjust to civilian life after being released from active duty. “The transition period was one thing that I didn’t fully appreciate,” Troost notes. “I assumed they would come back home and then be ready to go back to work in a week or so. But it was important that they have a couple months to readjust to civilian life. They really needed it.”
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.
“The military does a good job explaining the HR and business issues before they leave, so the most important thing we can do is support the family,” Troost adds. “We made sure to include the families in our company dinners and functions. I know there were a few other employees who helped our branch manager’s wife repair the lawn mower and did other things to support her while he was gone.”
Bogle agrees that the best thing we on the homefront can do is offer our support. “These young people are ready to go anywhere because they believe in this country. We should support them 100 percent, no matter what we feel politically.”
Fisher will reward his deployed technician with a new service van when he returns. “As we hired technicians, we ordered new vans. I thought he deserved some special treatment based on what he’s done for us. So rather than keep his old one waiting for him, I earmarked a new one for him instead of one of the new guys.”
Although having an employee called up for active duty can put a strain on any company’s resources, most distributors agree with Don Fisher, who says, “We think it’s our obligation to support the government and the military, so we do what we need to do.” 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 the material handling industry—both of which have an important role in keeping our nation strong.