The Office of Personnel Management yesterday asked federal departments and agencies to ease the financial burden on federal workers called to active duty from the reserves by paying the employees' share of medical insurance costs for a year and by keeping their specific jobs open until they return from military duty.
"We felt we wanted to go as far as we could to be supportive," said OPM Deputy Director Bill R. Phillips. "They shouldn't have to worry about this when they're saying goodbye."
More than 1.1 million reserves are awaiting the call from President Bush for duty in connection with the Iraq crisis. The federal government, with 2.4 million workers nationwide, has 125,000 employees holding selected reserve status, the group eligible to be called up.
There are another 16,000 selected reservists who work for the U.S. Postal Service, and Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank said in an interview yesterday that the agency has decided to pay the personal medical benefits contribution for 13 weeks for any employee called into service.
"They are really taking a financial blow," said Frank, who estimated a cost to the Postal Service of as much as $500,000. "We think it's the right thing to do, to help out."
The contrasts between protection for employees in the private and public sectors are sharp.
Federal employees who are reservists, and their families, are automatically covered by the military's health benefits plan once they are called to reserve duty, but the coverage is more limited than other plans and, in most cases, would not enable a federal employee to remain with a specific physician or hospital.
Federal rules say federal employees can keep their chosen medical plan for one year after being called into reserve duty provided they continue to pay their contribution to the plan. But after a year, the employee must convert to a "nongroup contract" if he desires coverage over what the military provides. These policies are generally much more expensive than those offered to federal employees.
There is little that federal law requires private employers to do to help ease the economic pain of converting from a civilian to a military pay scale. At a minimum, companies are required by federal employment law to provide at least the same benefits for reservists that they give to anyone else taking a leave of absence.
The primary economic protection for reservists comes from the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, enacted in 1940. A provision of the act, regarding creditors, places a 6 percent interest rate ceiling on consumer debts such as home mortgages, credit cards and auto loans. But the law allows a court to waive the ceiling if an individual can afford to pay more.
"What I've been telling reservists is that they need to go talk to creditors if they think they're going to have trouble paying," said Michael Higgins of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and compensation.
Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, sent a letter yesterday to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney outlining the problems facing reservists in this area and asking if new legislation was needed.
The OPM memorandum, which was sent to executive department and agency heads yesterday, asked that federal reservists be placed on leave without pay "given the uncertain duration" of the call to active duty, a designation that would protect employees' health benefits and life insurance for an extended period. It also asked departments to "detail" rather than reassign remaining employees to fill vacated positions.
Under the law, reservists are guaranteed that they will not lose pay or rank, although their specific job could be taken away from them.
"We want to send a signal to employees involved that they're going to come back to their same positions," said Don Winstead, acting deputy assistant director for pay programs at OPM. "It's a gesture to the employees."