Reserve Call-Ups Hit Businesses in The Pocketbook
By DAVID GREENBERG
Local businesses are scrambling to replace military reservists being called to duty as the U.S. mobilizes for a possible war with Iraq.
But employers must be careful in filling the positions held by members of the California National Guard and federal reserves so they stay within the law without letting their costs balloon out of control with excessive overtime or overstaffing.
As they either promote, hire or train replacements to fill the spots, they must also prepare for when reservists return home to reclaim their old jobs under the federal Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, which mandates that workers be rehired.
“We’re recruiting heavily just to fill our open slots and the normal attrition,” said Doug Hamilton, corporate operations and training coordinator for Guard Systems Inc., which employs 1,200 security guards, 10 percent of who are in the reserves or are guardsman. “Right now, we’re trying to overstaff to get down to the miracle thing of zero overtime. But as we lose more people, the overtime will go up.”
The El Monte-based security firm is advertising vacancies more heavily than usual, even offering recruitment bonuses for new hires to make up for the 20 employees that already have been deployed and the 100 others who could get called soon. Hamilton said it could cost nearly $1,000 to train each new employee.
Other sectors being hit particularly hard include airlines, which are losing pilots; police and fire departments, which have disproportionately high number of reservists among their ranks; and small businesses, which are less flexible in personnel changeovers.
Alaska Airlines has 160 of its 1,487 pilots who have been called for duty. Of that number, 32 are based in L.A.
So far, the airline has maintained a full flight schedule, but that could change in a protracted war. “If all 160 of them are gone for a significant amount of time, it will have a more significant operational impact,” said Jack Walsh, a spokesman for the airline. “We’d need to make some scheduling adjustments. If we have 15 flights a day from Seattle to L.A., we might have to change that to 14 or 13 flights.”
Under a Department of Defense policy issued in late 2001, most reservists have been given one-year deployment orders with instructions to commanders to release units of troops earlier if they are no longer needed.
All reservists are part of details involving Operation Enduring Freedom (the action against Iraq) and Operation Noble Eagle (stateside homeland security). California Air and Army National Guards members are placed under federal authority when deployed.
Defense Department officials had no breakdown detailing how many of the state’s 65,000 reservists come from L.A. County.
But a nationwide survey of 35,000 reservists conducted by the agency in 2000 found that 30 percent worked for private firms with at least 500 employees; 17.8 percent for private firms with less than 100 employees; and 13.1 percent for the federal government.
Locally, 549 of the LAPD’s 9,034 sworn officers and 48 of its 3,181 civilian staff belong to the reserves or National Guard.
With the department already short 1,000 officers, the loss of additional personnel will mean a thinning of the ranks on the street and more overtime pay taken out of an already cash-strapped budget.
“If there’s a war, more than likely a lot of those officers (and staff) are going to be called,” said LAPD spokesman Jason Lee. “It will probably affect response times, (the number of) arrests and basic enforcement. It’s a big concern for us.”
The list of those being called up includes Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who was scheduled to be deployed Feb. 3 to the Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team in San Pedro.
For smaller businesses, the effects of losing an employee could be significant.
“If you’re a private practice attorney or a physician and you work alone or in a small partnership, what do you tell your clients?” said Lt. Col. Bob Stone, public services assistant for the Department of Defense reserve affairs office. “Do you refer them to another attorney or physician in your absence? When you come back, how do you re-establish your client base? That’s something that you have recognized in your business plan beforehand.”
Only businesses that have eliminated a position because of downsizing are exempt from the job protection law. Reservists returning from duty have a limited amount of time to reapply for their old position. For those serving less than 31 days, it’s just two days.
Not all businesses comply with the laws. Some bosses have refused to rehire reserves while others attempt to take away vacation time for weekend military service or refuse to promote or train people they know will be shipped out soon.
To combat any abuses, the Employee Support of the Guard and Reserve office has volunteers that handle discrimination complaints on behalf of victims.
“We will try to work with (companies’) policies,” said Malcolm Harper, a retired lawyer and 16-year ESGR volunteer. “But if they are inconsistent with the military’s policies, the military will prevail.”