States Act to Ease Troops' Financial Pain
By Nick Timiraos, Special to Stateline
Thirty-one states and Puerto Rico have responded to the largest mobilization of the National Guard and Reserves since World War II by guaranteeing to make up the difference between civilian and military pay for state employees called to active duty.
As state budget deficits have turned to surpluses, more states have taken steps to cover the difference in pay since military call-ups began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Still, 19 states and the federal government - the single largest employer of Guard members and reservists - provide no pay differential to their employees who temporarily leave their jobs, families and paychecks to help fight the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Oregon doesn't offer a pay differential to its employees who also serve as citizen-soldiers. State Rep. Jeff Kropf (R) visited Oregon's National Guard troops in Iraq last year and found that soldiers were frustrated.
"In conversations with these guys, it was pretty obvious that many of them felt unappreciated and not valued by the government," Kropf said. He helped push for increased spending, and the Legislature added $7 million in benefits for citizen-soldiers this year.
When summoned for active duty, guardsmen and reservists face challenges such as leaving behind a family with mortgage payments and tuition bills -- and often must make do on a smaller paycheck. A corporal in the Army National Guard might net an annual salary of $35,000 while on active duty, leaving him $15,000 short of his $50,000 state job. In the war on terrorism, citizen-soldiers have faced increasingly long deployments, ranging from six months to two years.
Nearly 140,000 of the 400,000 Guard and Reserve members are on active duty - comprising nearly half of the current force in Iraq and Afghanistan - and about 40 percent take a pay cut when mobilized, according to the Government Accountability Office. A 2000 GAO survey found that those who took a pay cut to serve in the Guard had an average loss of $1,700 a year.
There are no nationwide numbers of mobilized state workers.
More than 100 county and city agencies independently offer a pay differential. Chicago's public school system has a pay-gap policy, as does its Department of Aviation, but the Windy City's other agencies have no such guarantees. In California, gaps in teachers' salaries are covered for 180 days while state employees receive the difference between civilian and military pay for one year.
"States and municipalities are leading the way and setting an example not only for corporations, but for the federal government," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association . Political pressures, the need to recruit and retain soldiers and a desire to help out guardsmen and their families have focused lawmakers' efforts on bridging the pay gap.
Some private employers, from Toyota to Sears, make up a difference in pay even though it isn't required. While no state requires private businesses to supplement their employees' Guard pay, some states are encouraging corporations to bridge the pay gap:
- In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush (R) signed legislation earlier this year that created a $1.8 million Citizen Soldier Matching Grant Program, which allows private employers to apply for grants to help them supplement pay for some 1,200 active-duty soldiers.
- Pennsylvania's House has passed a bill supported by Gov. Ed Rendell (D) that would offer a tax credit for 20 percent of a soldier's salary, worth up to $25,000, if a company covers the pay gap.
"I know that some employers are already offering the difference in pay. Unfortunately not all employers are able to do that and many have told me they'd like to have help," said Pennsylvania state Rep. Jerry Nailor (R), the bill's sponsor and a three-year Army veteran. While Pennsylvania has not passed pay-gap legislation, active-duty employees in certain executive branch offices receive a monthly $500 stipend.
Budget cuts and difficulty in predicting the fiscal impact of pay-gap legislation have stymied efforts to consider similar bills in other states, said Heather Morton, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Goheen agreed. "States that are in a better fiscal situation are able to do more. It isn't so much a reflection of interest to do things as the ability to do things. Some states are just fiscally strapped," he said.
But Steve Kreisberg, collective bargaining director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that while it's "obviously a cost for states," passing legislation to support citizen-soldiers isn't "a matter of means, it's a matter of willingness."
Goheen said that some parts of the country with higher salaries, such as the Northeast, have a greater demand for pay-gap legislation than others.
Larger employers - states, cities and companies - have an easier time making up the difference in pay for guardsmen. "It would be a big imposition on a small town with a small workforce to pay someone the pay difference and then to hire someone new on top of that," said Maj. Robert Palmer, a spokesman for the Employer Support of the Reserve and Guard.
While not all states have enacted pay-gap laws, almost all states offer some type of financial relief to their employees and others called to lengthy Guard duty - complimentary hunting and fishing licenses, child support assistance, help with rent payments, reduced in-state college tuition, subsidized health care or free life insurance premiums.
The federal government has yet to enact a pay-gap law. Both houses of Congress last year passed separate pay-gap measures that a House-Senate conference committee later threw out as too expensive. With 65,000 reservists employed by federal agencies and an additional 48,000 federal technicians who are Guard members as a condition of employment, the federal government remains the single largest employer of Guard members and reservists.
The Senate tentatively endorsed the creation of a 50 percent tax credit up to $30,000 for employers that make up any difference in pay. The tax credit is part of a bill introduced in both chambers, the HOPE at HOME Act (Help Our Patriotic Employers at Helping Our Military Employees), which also would provide pay-gap benefits for federal employees.
While the bill has the support of the Military Coalition, which includes 35 national military and veterans organizations, the Department of Defenses opposes the measure. Hypothetically, it could allow two soldiers sharing the same foxhole to receive different pay.
Lynne Weil, a spokesperson for the bill's House sponsor, U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), said that Congress faces mounting pressure to help citizen-soldiers. "The longer that the conflict in Iraq and the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan are keeping members of Guard and reserves in the field, the more pressure there is from families and from groups representing the Guard and reserve to ensure they get fair pay," Weil said.
Kropf, the Oregon legislator, warned that failing to help the Guard now could have serious consequences later, when guardsmen are needed not only to prosecute foreign wars but also to help with domestic emergencies.
"Either we step up to the plate and show folks by the benefits we offer that we value the citizen-soldier, or, if we don't, we will lose a lot of those people with valuable experience," he said.