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War in Iraq hits home for businesses

Long deployments of military reservists are causing hardships for businesses and their employees.
Lance Cpl. Ryan of the Company L, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment celebrates with family in Columbus
Members of Company L arrive at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus, Ohio, in October after a seven-month deployment in Iraq. Such long deployments are hurting businesses and returning reservists.Matt Sullivan / Reuters

Long Iraq War deployments for military reservists and National Guard members are putting businesses and many returning reservists in a bind.

Businesses have lost key employees for extended time periods. In many cases, those key employees are also family members. In a growing number of instances, reservists are returning to find their employment options limited -- even when the law protects them. And some business owners and politicians are calling for changes in the law to make it easier for businesses to cope with the effects of the Iraq War.

The bizjournals Washington Bureau reports that one-third of National Guard members work for businesses with 100 or fewer employees, and most of those businesses can't afford to keep paying an employee who has been deployed. They also have to somehow get the employees' work done, by hiring a temporary or permanent replacement.

A Department of Defense survey shows that the situation is damaging reservists' careers when they return from Iraq, something prohibited by law. Despite the law's requirement that businesses give Guard members and reservists the same job, salary and benefits when they come home, those things aren't always happening, the Washington Bureau reports.

The survey found about 8 percent of returning reservists and Guard members weren't promptly re-employed and up to 14 percent lost seniority or benefits.

"Most employers certainly do not want to make life more difficult for returning reservists, especially in light of the personal sacrifices they have already made," employment attorney Rose Kenyon told the Triangle Business Journal. "But companies are struggling with limited financial resources and more employees being sent to war."

The Triangle Business Journal reports that 80 percent of companies with deployed employees coped with the loss by adding to other employees' duties. About 15 percent have hired full-time employees.

But that's only part of the picture, especially for very small businesses paying the cost of long deployments for key employees or owners, as the Puget Sound Business Journal reports.

The law that protects employees from losing their positions when they're deployed does little for business owners, the Puget Sound Business Journal reports. "We had to re-gear and just go into survival mode," Evan Adams told the business journal. He and his son, John, harvest oysters near Shelton, Wash. But when John was deployed and Evan had a heart attack, that meant tough times for the family business.

And John was under no illusions about the future of the business when he talked to the Puget Sound Business Journal this spring. "We're 18 months from getting back to where we were two years ago," he said. "Lack of maintenance and reinvestment, that's death to a small business.

Still, not all is grim for those returning from the Iraq War and their employers, or potential employers.

Buffalo Business First reports that many businesses are tilting toward hiring Iraq veterans. "We owe these people coming back. The put their lives on the line for us," Linda McDonnell, a vice president at Adecco, told Business First. "We take that person and try to market them as best we can. We're not saying, 'we've got a military person - would you like to grab them?' but we tell them we have a highly-qualified person getting back into the workforce after serving. We are doing whatever we can to place the personnel and the spouse."