Since 9/11, the U.S. has deployed the largest number of active duty and reservists since the Vietnam War. Of the more than 2.3 million deployed (with over 760,000 National Guard and Reserve), about half have left the military (with about 640,000 Guard and Reservists deactivated). And over the next few years, it’s expected that even more soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen will be returning to or seeking civilian jobs. For small businesses, filling the boots of those citizen soldiers during sometimes multiple deployments of a year or more has had its costs. But keeping the lines of communication open before, during, and after deployment can help ease their transition back into the workplace. There are also legal and logistical factors a small business must consider if temporary help has been brought in during those deployments.
When Frank Strong, a career reservist, got orders to deploy to Iraq in October 2005, he was one-third of the marketing team at Tysons Corner, Virginia based Managed Objects, a $30-million software company of 100 people at the time. “As soon as you get notification of deployment, you’re obligated to let your employer know,” explains Strong. “so they can make the necessary adjustments.” Before he left, Strong’s co-workers had a party for him and bought him an iPod. While his employer brought in help during his deployment, his position was open when he returned, as is required by law.
According to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), employers are obligated to reinstate uniformed services employees who have been deployed to the same position or one that is commensurate in responsibility and pay, as well as continue health benefits for up to 24 months. And depending on the length of deployment, returning uniformed services employees may be entitled to leave time before having to return to their civilian jobs. Returning service members are also entitled to any promotions and/or salary increases that may have occurred during their absence, as well as reinstatement of health benefits if they chose to use military health plan during deployment.
Including training leading up to his deployment, Strong was gone for about a year and a half, returning in the spring of 2007. But he kept in touch with his employer, exchanging emails with his boss at least monthly. “He’d keep me updated on what’s going on with the company,” recalls Strong. When he returned, Strong met with his boss and visited the office to let everyone know he’d be returning. “It’s important to show your face and let your employer know you’ll bet back,” notes Strong. “But employers should also encourage their employees to take the full time they’re allotted after their service, because you need that time to visit family and friends, arrange housing and get your life in order.” Upon his return from Iraq, Strong took the full 90 days he was entitled to before returning to work.
Louie Keen has employed several active-duty military, Reservists, National Guard, and veterans, as well as their spouses, at his three small businesses in St. Robert, Missouri, home to Fort Leonard Wood, the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Support Center, which trains up to 90,000 military and civilians each year. “When I hire someone, their family becomes part of the organization,” explains Keen. “Our soldiers are protecting our country, we try to do that for their families while they’re gone.” Keen keeps in contact with spouses and invites the families to company events and holiday parties. “It gives soldiers peace of mind knowing their families are being treated the same way while they’re away.”
For employees in key jobs gone for long and multiple deployments, Keen offers them comparable positions at the same pay until they get themselves acclimated. “For positions that require a lot of training like bartending, they’ll work the back of the bar for a while and then I’ll give them some bartending shifts once they’re back up to speed,” says Keen.
Social media and the Internet have also made it easier for Keen’s deployed employees and customers to stay connected. “Many friendships develop at our businesses,” notes Keen. “Connecting through our Facebook page gives them a sense of home while they’re away.” Keen also stays in contact with his deployed employees’ unit commanders or senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs), who can assist with sending care packages to deployed soldiers and help with transition after deployment.
By the time he was deployed again in April 2011 as part of a multinational peacekeeping force sent to Egypt, Strong had moved onto Beltsville, Maryland-based Vocus, a cloud marketing software provider. It was much easier to stay in touch with his employer this time around, as Internet access was more readily available. “The technology was far better than in Iraq,” recalls Strong. “I was able to stay up to date real time through Twitter and the company’s web site and spoke to my boss about once a month.” Like at his previous employer, Strong was placed on an unpaid leave of absence during his deployment, However, Vocus also offered to make up the pay differential between his higher civilian salary and lower military pay and continued to match Strong’s 401(k) contributions, though the company was not legally obligated to do so. Strong recommended his employer for an award through Employer Support of Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Department of Defense agency created in 1972 to improve cooperation and understanding between National Guard and Reservists and their civilian employers.
For those small businesses that can’t afford to extend benefits or pay, they can still sign a statement of support for their Guard and Reserve member employees through ESGR, which also offers USERRA training in conjunction with the Department of Labor (DOL) and compliance assistance for employers.
“The military has gotten a lot better at taking care of soldiers once they come home since the early days or Iraq,” says Strong. Still, adjusting back to civilian life can be difficult, particularly for service members who have been deployed to combat zones. “If I see someone flipping that switch a little too quickly, I make sure they get some counseling,” notes Keen. “But the military has trained them to be that way in combat, so it takes some time to undo that.” In the 11 years since the start of the War on Terror, Keen has only had to let go two employees in 2004/2005 after their deployment for behavioral issues. “The transition usually takes a few months,” says Keen. “But the difference between 2006 versus 2012 is enormous with regard to how the military is helping to re-integrate the soldiers after their tours.”
To help with the transition, Strong recommends entrepreneurs open up the communication lines as the pace of adaptation at small businesses is often quick. “Have a conversation about expectations, metrics and goals, if the job description has changed or new responsibilities have been added,” Strong advises. Also, it might help to become familiar with resources like Military One Source, and the Center for Deployment Psychology’s free online training course in “military cultural competence,” which will also help increase employer sensitivity to some of the issues that their part-time military employees face during and after deployment.
Life after the military for new veterans
The Costa Mesa, California nonprofit Working Wardrobes, recently received a federal grant to launch its VetNet program, which offers veterans a much broader array of career development services and industry training and offers education to employers on how to recruit, train, and retain qualified veterans. “Having served veterans among our general population for the past seven years, we discovered that much more needed to be done to address issues unique to their situation,” explains Jerri Rosen, founder and CEO of Working Wardrobes. “Particularly in that transitional period after leaving the military.”
“Many veterans are very young, having enlisted just after high school, and don’t plan to return to jobs they had before they entered the military,” points out VetNet case manager Dr. Roberta Cone. “One of the things we focus on is translating skills and discipline they acquired in their military training and tour of duty to a civilian skill set.” The staff of VetNet all have military backgrounds and training and sensitivity to the unique challenges veterans face. “We have a lot of tools to help make that transition easier for the veteran and the potential employer,” explains Rosen. “It’s not just about finding a job, but retraining to be part of civilian and workplace culture.”
While small businesses need to be aware of their legal responsibilities, those costs are far outweighed by the value of retaining uniformed service employees. Employers can seek additional support by partnering with local nonprofits and state agencies that work with veterans. “One of the benefits of hiring a reservist is you get someone that’s very motivated and wants to do more than just the minimum,” notes Strong. “They’ve attached themselves to selfless service and duty of country. And that’s a trait you see replicated in their day-to-day work ethic.” But educating yourself and employees about the issues deployed service members face doesn’t cost a thing and can help ease their transition back to the workplace.