Private Sector Surpasses Agencies on Pay to Deployed

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wachovia Corp., the banking giant, Eaton Corp., an industrial manufacturer, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car keep their employees on full salary and benefits, regardless of military compensation, when they are called to active duty in the reserves and National Guard.

Other organizations also help out their reserve and Guard employees beyond the letter of the law. Citizens Financial Group Inc., the Los Angeles Police Department, Sears, Roebuck and Co., the state of Delaware and Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. provide financial support to their employees, including a pay differential, for periods ranging from a year to the duration of the deployment.

The companies were among 15 recently honored by the Pentagon with the 2005 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, in recognition of their exceptional support of their Guard and reserve employees. The 15 companies went beyond the requirements of the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which seeks to guarantee that workers have a comparable job waiting for them when they return from their military service.

The federal government, however, falls short of being a model employer in its treatment of civil service employees called to active duty. Although federal agencies comply with the law, the government does not make up the difference in pay when an employee is called to active military duty and receives a smaller salary.

David M. Walker , the head of the Government Accountability Office, attended the Freedom Award banquet Oct. 15 and later told a House committee that "the U.S. government is not leading by example or practicing what it preaches in connection with employer support for the Guard and reserves."

Walker, in his prepared statement, said the GAO and federal agencies are constrained by law and ought to have some leeway to ease salary shortfalls for Guard and reserve families.

"Federal agencies should be able to make up any salary differential that activated Guard and reserve members might otherwise lose out of our annual appropriation," Walker said. "We would also like to be able to be sure that applicable employees and their family members continue to receive their employer-provided benefits."

There are about 1.13 million people in the Guard and reserves, and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress have estimated that about 40 percent of those called to active duty suffer a loss of income, putting mortgages and other obligations in jeopardy, because their military pay is less than they would have earned in their civilian jobs.

About 126,850 reservists are employed by federal agencies, and about 96,600 of them work for the Defense Department. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) estimates that 17,000 federal employees have been mobilized to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.

The Senate has approved an amendment sponsored by Durbin that would require a federal employee's agency to pay the difference between a worker's reservist pay and federal civilian pay. More than 100 House members, organized by Lantos, have written to the House Appropriations Committee backing the Durbin amendment.

The amendment has been stripped out of bills during past House-Senate negotiations -- what the senator calls "the darkness of a conference committee."

In general, Defense officials have opposed bills that would close the "pay gap" for some mobilized reservists because they believe it could cause morale problems. Officials have contended that all parts of the armed forces -- active, Guard and reserves -- should be compensated according to their performance of military duties under the existing military pay system.

The officials point out that federal employees who are mobilized may take a month of military leave each calendar year with differential pay and that a special category of federal employees, military technicians, can receive two months at full civilian salary. Federal agencies also may pick up health insurance costs for up to 24 months for their mobilized reservists.

Still, the House members said in their letter, "what is good for the goose should be good for the gander," suggesting that the government, as the largest employer of reservists, should be able to match the support offered by companies to ease financial burdens on employees called to serve.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company