Military reservists called to active duty during the gulf crisis are entitled to their old jobs back, or at least to their rightful place in the layoff line.
But there's very little in the law to protect reservists from their creditors if they or their families cannot meet continuing expenses on military pay while they are gone.
As the White House contemplates calling up the reserves to supplement the armed forces being assembled in Saudi Arabia, government agencies are being flooded with calls from employers wanting to know about the employment and benefit rights of workers who might be ordered to serve.
"I think we're finding a real groundswell from people who want to obey the law but don't understand the law," said John Tieso of the Labor Department's Office of Veterans' Employment and Training.
Under federal law, reservists plucked out of the civilian work force in a call-up must be offered either their old job or an equivalent job with their former employer, with full seniority, when they return.
While a reservist is not entitled to back pay for the period of military service, an employer must increase wages and salaries to reflect any increases an individual would have received if he or she had not been called up.
This is known as the "escalator principle." It states that a returning veteran, in the words of the Labor Department, "does not step back on the seniority escalator at the point he stepped off. He steps back on at the precise point he would have occupied had he kept his position continuously during his military service."
But there is also a down escalator. An employer who can show that a veteran's job would have been eliminated normally during the period of military service does not have to take the reservist back. Or a returning veteran may be entitled only to his or her rightful place in the layoff line if the employer can show that the veteran would have been laid off during the service period.
The most difficult aspect is that the law offers no real protection for someone going from a high-paying civilian job to relatively meager military pay, although the reservist must cope with mortgage payments and other family expenses as before.
"There's very limited relief available," said Francis M. Rush of the Defense Department's Manpower and Personnel division. He said reservists can get their rent payments put off for up to three months -- provided the rent is no more than $150 a month.
A murkier area is the question of benefits such as health insurance. Under federal law, employers have no obligation to continue medical benefits but must provide the same coverage they would give someone on a leave of absence.
Labor Department officials said one potential problem area involves reservists called up for less than 30 days. Their dependents could be left without medical insurance unless the employer provides it.
The returning veteran has the right to appeal any employer action. The National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and the Reserve, an arm of the Defense Department, has an ombudsman service that will attempt to mediate any dispute. But all enforcement is carried out by the Labor Department.