When a Key Employee Joins the Service

When a Key Employee Joins the Service

Small businesses depend on each member to play a vital role in the operation. So naturally, no owner wants to see a key player swap out his or her work clothes for an Armed Services uniform. Still, those who employ reservists face the potential for Uncle Sam to call up and clock out the help at any time.

More and more businesses find themselves struggling to compensate for the absence of employees called to duty. For these companies, even one deployment can cause operational problems for an extended period of time, if not indefinitely. What's more, the government safeguards the work rights of enlisted persons.

Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights (USERRA) legislation ensures that reservists do not lose their previous jobs while away. It also prohibits businesses from discriminating against individuals in any aspect of employment as a result of service in the reserves.

The USERRA secures some continuation of benefits during a worker's activation, as well. Chief among these is health insurance.

An employee who is absent 30 days or less - at a training session, for instance - can continue medical coverage at the same cost during this period. If service goes beyond 30 days, the appropriate military health care plan will kick in.

After deployment, the returning employee is entitled to re-enroll in the company's medical or health insurance plan with no required waiting period or exclusion. On the flip side, an employer-sponsored health program is not required to cover those injuries or illnesses related to military service.

While this law helps preserve the livelihoods of military men and women in combat, it also tightens the economic vise on small businesses faced with call-ups. In their report, The Effects of Reserve Call-ups on Civilian Employers, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the USERRA "limits firms' flexibility avoiding vacancies and imposes additional costs on some employers." In certain cases, the deployed person's absence means decreased production, lost sales and more.

Fortunately, there is some relief. The Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (MREIDL) (http://www.sba.gov/content/military-reservists-economic-injury-loans) offers funds to eligible small businesses to meet ordinary and necessary operating expenses when an essential employee is called to active duty. Intended to supply only working capital needed to maintain the status quo until key personnel return from service, these monies do not cover lost income or lost profits. They also do not apply to commercial debt, refinance of loans or business expansion.

The Battle At Home

Small businesses stung by an employee's deployment must wrestle with a number of issues. The most important, however, is making up for the lost manpower. Even so, owners have a range of options.

They might decide to lean a bit on other employees to take up the slack, for instance. Through tweaking work schedules and issuing overtime, companies sometimes quash the problem without taking on outside help, at least for a while. But a reservist's deployment might last anywhere from weeks to years. For this reason, some companies eventually opt to seek contract workers on an as-needed basis.

For those owners needing full-time help, staffing agencies offer a number of solutions. Many of these firms not only provide temporary candidates, but temporary-to-permanent as well.

Here are some additional tips for maintaining consistent operations during a valuable employee's deployment:

  • As the employer, it's your responsibility to know the ins-and-outs of the deployed employee's job.
  • Ensure that at least one other staff member understands the responsibilities of the military employee and can take them on at a moment's notice.
  • When using the services of temporary employment agencies and independent contractors, be honest regarding the deployed employee's eventual return.
  • Train replacements early to avert problems later. Have them "job shadow" the reservist staff member, taking notes of his or her work routine.
  • Before the employee deploys, give replacement personnel a trial run to identify additional training needs.
  • Put together procedural guides and manuals that outline the reservist's job duties. These can be updated and revised as needed for future use.

When possible, small business owners should set up a line of communication with the activated employee prior to their deployment. This can be done through swapping e-mail addresses with the reservist themselves or their family members and commanding officers. Taking this simple step allows businesses to stay in the loop when it comes to their employees' whereabouts. Ultimately, the measure not only keeps companies up-to-date on the safety of their staff members, but also allows them to better plan their next operational move.

Aside from relief loans, the SBA also offers management support for those with deployed reservists. The non-profit organization teams up with its vast range of resource partners to provide business development, counseling and training designed to nullify the void left by deployed staff members. Those interested should contact their district SBA office. A list of local resources is available at http://www.sba.gov.

The Hard Reality

As is the case with most small businesses, leaping over hurdles is all a part of the daily grind. Very few operations go from one week to the next without some type of challenge. Call it "damage control" or "putting out fires," setback almost always rears its ugly head when running a full-blown business with only a handful of folks.

Truthfully, no business can afford to lose a primary staff member. But if this does occur, preparation might be the difference between marching on and missing the boat. Business owners faced with such a dilemma must dig up the same creativity and determination they mustered when first spearheading their venture. The simple rule is don't be afraid to think outside the box. Innovative employers can always find factors to work in their favor.
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