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Employers jugglereservist staffs

North Carolina Army National Guard Private 1st Class Brooklyn Dorsey, left, gets farewell hug from friend and sorority sister Nikki Nowlin, in Morrisville, N.C. last week.
North Carolina Army National Guard Private 1st Class Brooklyn Dorsey, left, gets farewell hug from friend and sorority sister Nikki Nowlin, in Morrisville, N.C. last week.
/ Source: CNBC

Reservists are civilians who spend a weekend a month and a few weeks a year working for the military and make a little extra money and get benefits down the road. The catch: When the military calls you to active duty, you have to go. Some 56,000 reservists and national guardsman have been activated to prepare for war in Iraq and tens of thousands of others are expected to join them — creating challenges not only for the people involved but for their employers as well.

Gary Hammons is an accountant in Houston — or at least that’s what he’s supposed to be. But for most of the last 16 months, he’s been a military police officer in the U.S. Army. Five months after coming to work at Weinstein, Spira, & Co., terrorists attacked America, and Hammons, a reservist, was called up to active duty.

“I believe it was the 25th of September, I got a phone call at night,” he said. “They told me to report on the 27th.”

Hammons was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana. Three months ago, he came home. And earlier this month, he got the word he’s being called up again. This time, the wife he’s leaving is pregnant with their first child.

“We were only married five months when I was called to go the first time,” he said. “I was gone a year, then back, so actually we’ve only lived together eight months in two years of marriage. And now I’m leaving again.”

The move caught Hammon’s boss, Jim Konen, by surprise. Konen says the company will do this time what it did last time: Pay the difference between Hammon’s military pay and his regular salary, and continue his benefits.

That’s an economic strain on a company with only 42 employees, but a commitment it feels strongly about. Other workers will pitch in to take over Hammon’s workload. But as an accounting firm, it’s tough to lose anyone with April 15th looming.

“It is probably the worst time of the year, since we have already scheduled our team members to work 50 hours a week,” said Konen. “So this is the worst time of year this could possibly happen.”

Many businesses losing reservists to the war effort are feeling the same sort of pain.

“We’re also seeing several public service organizations being especially hard hit: Police and fire departments, hospitals and health care organizations, prisons,” said John Challenger, CEO of the employment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Lost currency
Some companies, like IBM, Pfizer, and Qualcomm, have promised to pay activated reservists and guardsmen the differences in their salary from military pay. But Challenger says most of those who are being called up work for small- and medium-sized companies. And those firms can ill-afford to be so generous in this recession to someone who’s no longer working for them. Even though, by law, a company must hold your job and your seniority while you’re gone, you can still lose out.

“If you spend two years out doing another job, you lose currency with your company,” said Challenger. “It can be very difficult to return and fit back in.

But some businesses, like Home Depot, not only have reservists as employees who could get called up at any time, they also have active-duty personnel working second jobs.

Russ Long is a U.S. Marine stationed at the Miramar air station near San Diego, working on F-18 computer navigation systems and one of about a dozen active duty or reservists working for Home Depot in Mira Mesa, Calif. With about 20 different military installations nearby, the store’s manager, Dave Holguin, has learned to be flexible, as both active duty and reservists get called off to help fight the war.

“Our associates are guaranteed their jobs up to five years if they have to serve active duty,” he said.

And the company pays the difference in salary between a worker’s military and civilian job, along with benefits, for 90 days. Though another employee, Rick Merrall, never actually got a paycheck before he was called up. His first scheduled day to work at Home Depot was September 11, 2001. He had to leave his job for the Army National Guard immediately.

“They were great,” he said of his employer. “They were 100 percent supportive. They knew from the beginning I was in the Reserves. They said, ‘Good luck, be careful, we’ll be here for you when you come back.’”

And they were. In the meantime, by the time you see this story, Gary Hammons will be back in the Army, leaving behind his wife and his job, confident both will still be there when he returns.

“I think they’ll joke that I’ll do just about anything to miss tax season,” he said.

Major employers like Home Depot try to spread their military employees around so that no one department gets hit hard if there’s a large call-up. Just this week, in fact, some of the company’s active duty employees could not come in as various bases went into lock-down. And all of the reservists working here have been told to stand by for possible activation.