States Act to Protect Citizen Soldiers' Income
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
While pressed for cash, several states are acting to make sure National Guard troops and reservists called on to fight against Iraq or terrorism don't lose out financially.
Florida, New York, Tennessee and Virginia recently acted to assure that state employees don't get less income while they are on active duty. Connecticut went farther by also guaranteeing health care coverage for activated state workers. New York is offering the most generous package. It includes health care, pay differential and tuition breaks.
Despite facing some of the most wrenching budget decisions in decades, state leaders are choosing to put the welfare of those serving in uniform and their families as a top priority.
"What we've seen since September 11 is that many states and municipalities recognize the sacrifices that especially the Guards make, since it's the National Guard troops who are called up for Homeland Security" said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States.
"They [states and municipalities] want to step up and want to improve benefits and provide more as a means for recruiting and retention and as a way to thank the National Guard for their sacrifices," Goheen said. His Washington, D.C. based association represents National Guard members.
Many cash-strapped states may find it difficult to offer generous pay and health care benefits for reservists and their families. Collectively, the states deficits will be nearly $90 billion in fiscal 2004, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
"It's tough times for the states," Goheen said. "While we applaud those states and municipalities that have offered up pay differentials, we certainly understand that some states and municipalities just can't do it because the only way they could do it is to cut someplace else," Goheen said.
Federal law requires that employers -- including states and municipalities -- keep the same or similar jobs, pay and benefits waiting for employees who are away on military duty. But employers are not required to pay workers while they are serving.
The cost of such programs is hard to determine in advance since states often don't know how many Guard members and reservists will be called up. Generally, however, state employees in the National Guard or the National Guard Reserves number in the hundreds, not thousands. Virginia figures it will cost the state about $600,000 a year to make up the pay difference for the 200 state employees currently deployed, said Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
"It's more common now than it ever was for employers to be providing some kind of differential pay, if not a continuation of pay, and some kind of health benefits, if not an extension of health benefits, for their Reservists and Guard members," said Lt. Colonel Vince Savoia, a spokesman for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Department of Defense agency that helps employers understand troop and reservists' rights.
California, Delaware, Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Washington and Wyoming are among the states that have policies that expand pay differential and/or medical coverage for state Reserve and National Guard members called to active duty, according to ESGR.
Connecticut, New York and Virginia have all enacted measures in March that go beyond the Uniformed Services and Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, the federal law that mandates job protections for reservists.
The most sweeping proposal comes from New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) who outlined his "Patriot Plan" in early March and is implementing provisions of it via executive orders, with the most recent March 24.
Pataki's executive orders ensure the following for all military personnel, not just state workers:
- continued health care coverage while on active duty
- automatic renewal of their drivers' licenses
- free passes to family members to state parks and beaches
- free high-speed Internet access at state colleges and universities for families to contact their enlisted relatives
Other components of Pataki's proposed plan require state lawmakers' approval, such as giving free college tuition to children and spouses of New York military personnel killed on duty. An estimated 4,000 New York National Guard troops are on state and federal active duty, the governor's office said.
Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland signed legislation March 27 extending health care and providing pay differential for state employees called to active duty while Virginia Gov. Warner signed an executive order March 26 providing pay differential.
In Indiana, state Rep. Jeff Espich (R) plans to introduce a measure ordering the state to make up any difference in pay for state workers, according to Espich spokeswoman Karen L. Howe.
Forty-one percent of reservists reported they lost money when called to active duty compared to 29 percent who said they got a pay boost, according to a recent survey of reservists by the General Accounting Office, a federal watchdog agency.
Private employers also have acted voluntarily to provide more pay and benefits, according to the ESGR. The employers include American Express, Boeing Co., Coca Cola, Ford Motor. Co., Hewlett Packard, Miller Brewing Co., Sara Lee, United Parcel Service and Xerox.