Forget the image of the "weekend warrior" serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year in the National Guard or Reserves. Uncle Sam wants your employees, and he's taking more than ever.
It doesn't matter how many employees you have. The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994 protects all reservists' jobs while they are on duty. You don't have to keep paying reservists, but you can't fire them, demote them or cut their benefits while they're on leave.
The U.S. Labor Department also is taking enforcement seriously. In a recent deployment of 700 National Guard troops from Texas to Bosnia, Labor went after 28 employers for alleged USERRA violations. That followed dozens of other complaints that were mediated away.
One bit of good news: Leave times will soon be shrinking. Army officials announced last month that overseas deployments for each reservist will be capped at six months, down from 279 days.
Here's what you need to know to stay out of a battle with the military: Protection lasts 5 years
If military-related absences total less than five years, you must re-employ the worker in his old job or one with the same status, seniority, pay and benefits. The only workers without protection are those in short-term assignments, and there are several exemptions to the five-year limit, including inactive duty training.
The employee's benefits are also protected. You must allow returning reservists to contribute the same amount to a pension plan that they would have if they had never left. They're also entitled to bonuses they would have received had they not been called to duty.
Keep offering health benefits
If you offer health benefits, you must allow workers to continue to buy coverage during their military service for at least 18 months. But you don't have to pay for it. Just as with other COBRA coverage, you can charge up to 102 percent of the premium, adding 2 percent for administration costs. Reserv-ists have to decide whether to keep the coverage within 60 days of beginning their duty.
Note: You may be smart not to continue paying for health insurance, reservists may also be covered under the government's generous plan after 31 days of duty. Government coverage will expire on the last day of the orders for voluntary duty. Those on involuntary duty will have coverage for an extra 30 days after their orders expire.
You don't have to resume their regular coverage until the day workers are back on the job.
Reservists have obligations, too
To be eligible for re-employment, reservists must:
- Give you notice that they are leaving for military service.
- Be released from the service under honorable conditions.
- Report back to the job or reapply in a "timely manner."
What's timely? For less than 31 days of service, employees must report back the next scheduled work period, allowing a reasonable amount of time to return from duty plus at least eight hours. For 31 to 180 days of service, the employee has to apply for re-employment within 14 days. After 180 days, the employee has 90 days.
The deadlines can be extended for up to two years for employees with a service-related illness or injury.
For more details on the law...
or help in mediating conflicts with reservists, contact the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, (800) 336-4590 or www.esgr.org. Another source: The U.S. Labor Department at www.dol.gov/dol/vets.
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