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2/19/2004

Called to duty

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — At age 22, Seth Holland already has five years logged with a U.S. Marine Corps reserve unit. But though gung-ho for the Corps, most weeks he works full time at Sun Construction as a carpenter’s apprentice.

However, given the notification of activation he received in October, Holland could experience a swift scene change by this June.

His job, meanwhile, won’t go anywhere.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which recently replaced the longstanding Soldiers & Sailors Civil Relief Act, holds civilian jobs for those on military leave up to five years.

“Seth has a wife, and it’s nice that when he comes back (should he be activated) that he’ll also have a job,” said Andy Welch, Sun’s operations manager.

The new act represents unprecedented employment law protections for military personnel like Holland, according to Allan Estroff, director of government regulations at the Denver-based Mountain States Employers Council, Inc. and a speaker at the Longmont Area Economic Council’s mid January HR roundtable luncheon.

Yet, he said, many HR departments are fuzzy on vets’ rights. That may be partially due to the numbers involved. Of the 1.4 million military personnel on active duty, fewer than 200,000 National Guard and reserves have been mobilized, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

To Welch’s knowledge, just five Sun employees have been notified, and only one got orders.

“Most of my experience (with USERRA) happens when people like Seth come in, hand me the paperwork and say, ‘Hey, boss. I’ve gotta go,’” Welch said.

In that case, USERRA laws require employers to reinstate vets returning within 90 days of departure the exact same job. For those absent 91 days or more, the law mandates offering a similar job.

“If it means firing somebody else (to do that,) it means firing somebody else,” Estroff said.

Though Colorado is an “at will” state where employers can fire without cause or any advanced notice, he added, USERRA protects returning vets up to one year — depending on time served — from being fired without good cause.

What’s more, USERRA recognizes an “escalator principle,” which accounts for seniority and benefits gained had the employee not left to serve, Estroff said.

As for reimbursement during the leave, an MSEC survey of 900 Colorado employers revealed that 26 percent have no military leave policy, 40 percent offer unpaid leave and 33 percent continue with some pay and benefits.

Boulder County represents one area employer in the latter category, according to Joe Heard, the county’s senior human resources analyst.

Though just two of Boulder County’s 1,500 employees have taken a military leave, he said, on Feb. 5 the county commissioners approved extending the policy of paying the difference between the military and county salary from 12 to 24 months.

The county policy also covers health and dental premiums, Heard added, though it drops paying life insurance premiums after four months.

“Quite frankly, if they’re still out there after 24 months, we’ll probably extend that again, just based on the reaction we got from the commissioners,” he said. “They’re very supportive.”

That is something appreciated by men and women often given just 48 hours to pack up, Holland said.

“In the military there’s so much demanded of you — especially in the Marines, which has a high operational tempo,” he said. “It’s nice to know that there are laws out there protecting us since when we’re gone, we’re gone. We have a mission, and that’s our sole focus.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.