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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 35, No. 4 • February 24, 2003

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Counties and Call-ups

(Ed.’s note: This is the first of a two-part column.)

One of the strategic political decisions the United States has made is to shape its military power by depending on a relatively small volunteer force backed up by reserves. The outcome of such a decision is that employers around the country are now enlisted, if not drafted, as part of the military response following decisions made by the president. Employers have special responsibilities when orders for military activation arrive in the mailbox of an employee.

Military activation is more acute in its impact on local government than on other employers because of a natural affinity between military service and other forms of public service, especially law enforcement. Counties and cities have found that the military services may be an especially productive recruitment source for sheriffs, deputies, police officers, and others. Often, the employees we recruit from the military maintain a connection through service in the National Guard or Reserves. The other side of discovering a fertile recruitment source is the need to support the soldier/employee when ordered to go “over there.”

When the orders to activate arrive, the choice between law enforcement blue and Navy blue, Air Force blue or some camouflage-pattern uniform is easy to make. The law enforcement blue must be put in a closet until deployment is over.

In the last few months, thousands of employees across the country have come to work and immediately visited their supervisors to show them the military orders they just received. This is clear evidence that public employees and public agencies serve local as well as national and international policy purposes. The national war on terrorism is fought at least as much at the local level by city and county employees as it is by agents of the FBI, CIA, homeland security or airport screeners.

Just as is the case of unfunded, caseload-driven mandates dumped on local governments, such as indigent health care, jail bed space, and various social service programs, so it is that counties and cities also have human resource burdens, as well as opportunities, to do the right thing when it comes to supporting employees/soldiers.

What is “the right thing?” The HR Doctor points out that the right thing is divided between mandated right things, and additional above-and-beyond policies, which may be, but do not have to be, implemented.

The legal ones include a requirement that the job or comparable job of the soldier away from work must be preserved and made available for the employee upon return from military service. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific position must be kept open and the employer has to pay time and one half for overtime to replace the missing firefighter or police officer.

An agency can use a temporary position or it can add an extra position to be deleted by subsequent attrition. In organizations with constant staffing patterns such as those in health care areas, fire rescue organizations, and police departments, this technique of adding an additional position to be deleted subsequently involves no layoffs. It also reduces what would otherwise become yet another source of overtime expenses.

Another mandate requires the agency to maintain an employee’s salary for short-duration military activation, such as routine National Guard or Military Reserve training, usually 17 or 30 days per year. That mandate does not apply to longer activation such as one year or extensions to two years.

On to some right things which are optional. The HR Doctor suggests considering steps to ease what has to be a major burden on the employees and the families of employees who are called off to some desert oasis for prolonged periods. It is in the employer’s best interest to be a shining and positive example in the workforce by its conduct when a few employees are called to service.

Many agencies adopt a salary continuation philosophy, under which the difference between employees’ salaries and military salaries are made up by a supplement from the employer. The result is that the salary of the police officer continues at the same level during the corporal’s military service. The organization supplements the military pay.

Unfortunately, if this is not the approach selected by an organization, then the employee faces continuing, if not increasing, family expenses, since the pay may go down significantly. This depends, of course, on the military rank of the employee compared to the particular job classification in the public agency.

A police officer who is a military reserve colonel may earn more money when ordered to active duty than she does as a police officer. In this case no supplement is necessary. The opposite will be true when the police officer is a newly enlisted member of the military.

Another very appropriate and valuable step an employer can take is to designate a colleague or friend of the employee, or staff member from human resources, to be the soldier’s and the soldier’s family’s link for getting questions quickly answered and calls for help dealt with quickly. A military service liaison for each soldier costs the organization very little and can be very much appreciated. If a family member of a soldier has questions about county health insurance benefits, for example, HR and the liaison staff member must make it a very high priority to respond promptly and accurately.

Once orders are received by an employee, the HR Doctor recommends a conference with the employee, the department head and HR to ensure and reassure the soldier/employee about the status of pay, benefits, available liaison help, and anything else the organization or the soldier can think of that might ease the burden of a rather sudden departure for a long period of time. A letter designed to be read by the family as well as the employee/soldier should be the result of such a meeting. In fact, invite the employee’s spouse, or significant other, if any, to attend the briefing.

No employee should leave for military service without a clear signal of thanks and appreciation from the local government for the service they are rendering and the sacrifices they may be called upon to make. Don’t let an employee go softly into that dark night. Have a party. Let the employee know clearly that their service is recognized and appreciated. Do the same thing when the service activation is over and the employee returns. It’s not business as usual for a person to return after a year or two of service. It’s an occasion worth commemorating.

Finally, the difficult part. Should the soldier/employee be disabled as a result of military service or killed, the organization should absolutely do the right thing and be a source of support, sympathy and strong and positive intervention to help the family. For some additional insight into this very difficult situation, see the HR Doctor’s article, “When a Colleague Dies,” at

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •