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Sunday, October 21, 2001

October 21, 2001 - While They're Protecting Us, Who's Protecting Them? - New York Times

JEFF WALSH of Rockville, a member of the 143rd Military Police Company of the Connecticut National Guard, was on his way home from a wedding in New York the afternoon of Sept. 29 when he got a call from his unit commander to report for guard duty at Groton-New London Airport the next morning at 4 a.m. He managed to get only a couple of hours sleep before rising at 1:30 the next morning to get ready and make the trip.

He called and left a message on the answering machine at New England Building Products, where he works installing gutters on new homes. He knows this is a busy time of year for the company, because so many contractors are putting the finishing touches on homes built over the summer, but no one could control the timing, he said with a shrug.

''I had health insurance, but it came out of my check, and if I don't work I don't get paid, so I don't know what's going to happen with that,'' Mr. Walsh said. And while one of his supervisors has told him the company will hold his job for him, he also knows that his co-workers will not be able to keep up if someone is not brought in to replace him.

''If they hire someone else, I'm not going to fight to get a job back where someone doesn't want me,'' Mr. Walsh said. ''I like my job, and the money is great, but I guess I'd have to go someplace else.''

Throughout the state, workers who have been called up for emergency Guard and Reserve duties, and their employers, are struggling with the same questions. While federal law requires companies to hire these workers back when they return, it is up to each company to determine how to pay them while they are gone. Some companies keep paying salaries while the soldier is away, others pay nothing.

''Last night, I got a call from a Guardsman who works for the state, and he's quite upset because he's going to lose a big chunk of money because he has been called up,'' said Carl R. Venditto, Connecticut chairman of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, an advocacy group for the Reserve. ''It would be nice if they're not hurt financially by the recall.''

Some 600 Guardsmen in Connecticut are currently deployed, the largest deployment of the Guard since the Korean War. Many were called up before Sept. 11, including an Army Reserve unit that left for peacekeeping operations in Kosovo this month, and an Air National Guard unit enforcing sanctions against Iraq. The Guard and Reserve now make up more than half of the nation's military forces and are being more heavily used than any nonwar period in the past.....

......But there are occasional employment-related disputes about reservists being called to active duty. Sean P. O'Donnell, a Greenwich police officer and member of a military police unit in Orangeburg, N.Y., is involved in a labor dispute over the way the town handles call-ups. In the Gulf War, he said, Greenwich paid the difference between military pay and the employee's salary from the town. He said the town did not do it when he was called up to go to Bosnia for eight months in 1999 and 2000.

''When the flag came out waving, it was the politically correct thing to pay the individuals who got deployed,'' Mr. O'Donnell said. ''You run into the same financial difficulties whether you get called up for a popular war or something that doesn't get as much attention. If we can't take care of ourselves or, worse, our families, how are we going to stay in the job?

''This is a structural issue they're going to run into with all the Guard and Reserve members who are going to be called up,'' Mr. O'Donnell said. ''If the United States is going to rely so heavily on Reserve and Guard units, and leave the people hanging out there financially, you're going to lose very valuable, and very resourceful, soldiers, which is going to leave the whole country in a predicament.''

Lt. Michael A. Pacewicz, president of the Silver Shield Association, the town's police union, said while the policy in Greenwich calls for an unpaid leave, the policy was augmented during the Gulf War, and the union contends that should set a new standard.

''Officer O'Donnell was in Bosnia, he was called up by the military, he did exactly what you would expect of a patriot, and the town isn't treating him the same way as they did the people called up for the Gulf War,'' said Mr. Pacewicz. ''What they did in Desert Storm was a great thing, but you can't treat people differently if they were called up for Bosnia instead of Desert Storm, and we're afraid that they'll take the same position now.''

Greenwich officials did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment. Mr. Venditto said people who are called up are covered by the Uniform Services Employment Re-employment Rights Act, which basically requires that if a member of the reserves is called to service, the company must let them go and keep the job open for them when they get back.

There is also a provision that employees come back with all the benefits such as vacation, sick time and insurances that they would have had on the day they left.

''Simple as it is, a lot of employers, companies and municipalities, interpret it differently,'' Mr. Venditto said. ''We do have, occasionally, a problem with some people who don't understand the law. In those cases where an employee calls us with a concern, we refer them to an ombudsman, a mediation service that we use......

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