When wor kers
go to war
How small companies cope
with called-up employees
We’re taki“ng smaller
cutting back on
to keep the
By Harvey Meyer
DON’T MISUNDERSTAND Bernard Luther, CEO
of Applied Consultants. The Vietnam War veteran is
a “to-the-max” supporter of U.S. soldiers. But when
company president Chris Maxin left the six-employee San Diego firm last spring to serve in the
Naval Reserves for one year, for Luther it was like
getting punched in the gut.
How would the engineering consulting company survive while Maxin commanded a base in
“Chris has so much knowledge of our operations, and things were working so well,” says
Luther, a Costco member. “Then he got his
orders and everything went to heck in a
Applied Consultants’ situation is an
increasingly familiar one confronting U.S.
small businesses. The nation’s wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan are requiring the active-duty call-up of hundreds of thousands
of National Guard soldiers and
Reserve members. Small companies
are bearing the brunt of that service, since about 70 percent of soldier/reservists come from
99 or fewer
according to Major
Robert Palmer, strategic
communications chief for
Employer Support of the Guard
and Reserve (ESGR). That federal
agency promotes cooperation with companies supplying the citizen-soldiers,
mediates disputes and acts as an information clearinghouse.
A flip-side challenge for small companies often arises when the veterans
return home. After the rigors of war,
they must be reintegrated into the workplace. That can pose problems if their
physical and mental health disabilities
require special accommodations.
Fortunately, the vast majority of
companies employ just one soldier/reservist,
who may serve up to two years on active duty.
But for small firms, missing even one employee
causes major hardships.
Just ask Luther.
He figures that since Maxin departed last May,
revenues have tanked as much as 25 percent. Maxin’s
environmental expertise had helped drum up fresh
batches of clients.
“When Chris left, we elected to go into survival
mode,” says Luther. “We’re taking smaller projects
and cutting back on overhead to keep the company
afloat. Once Chris comes back, we’ll go back into
Instead of hiring a new employee, Maxin’s workload was distributed among the remaining five workers. Strong anecdotal evidence suggests most small
companies mirror Applied Consultants’ action, says
Palmer, also a Costco member.
One reason firms hesitate to hire replacement
workers is worry about running afoul of the federal
Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which is intended to
provide returning military personnel with a smooth
reentry into the workplace (see sidebar on next
page). USERRA mandates that all public and private
employers reinstate veterans in their former positions or the equivalent within a specified time.
For Skyline Membership Corporation, a West
Jefferson, North Carolina, telephone cooperative,
there was no question that two employees who
recently served as Army National Guardsmen in
Iraq would retain their jobs. In fact, the 133-
employee company surpassed USERRA requirements, contributing to the soldiers’ retirement plans
and offering them a year-end holiday bonus when
they were away. Skyline—which had presented the
men with gifts, corresponded with them and threw
going-away and welcome-home gatherings—was
recently honored by ESGR as one of the nation’s top
guardsman/reservist-supporting small companies.
Skyline’s Tim Stamper, a staking engineer,
served 15 months in Iraq before returning with a
combat-acquired foot injury. The company did not
have to make accommodations for Stamper or for
services technician Joe Taylor, who served 18
months. However, Taylor, who normally works
weekends, was awarded weekends off his first year
back to help him acclimate to home and family life.
“When they [Stamper and Taylor] came back,
we met with them and offered more time off than
was required [by USERRA],” says Angie Miller,