ESGR Volunteers Help Protect Guardmen's, Reservists' Jobs
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2003 All many reservists and guardsmen want for Christmas is assurance that their civilian jobs will be waiting for them when they redeploy from overseas.
Herman Garrett, left, receives the 2003 Ombudsman of the Year Award from David James, national chairman of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Guadalupe Stratman, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Thanks to a federal law – and hundreds of volunteer "elves" who ensure that both employees and their Guard and Reserve employees understand its requirements – Santa is sure to deliver.
Some 400 to 500 volunteer ombudsmen in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and Germany serve as field representatives for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, based here.
Some, like Fred Samuelson, the volunteer ombudsman coordinator for Maryland since 1994, devote as many as six hours a day to helping ensure that America's reserve force gets its rightful protections under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
Samuelson said the cases run the gamut: from guardsmen and reservists facing harassment, to being denied benefits, to getting fired from their jobs because of their military service.
After serving 18 months in the military back in 1948, then operating an automobile dealership in Baltimore, Samuelson has seen the issue from both sides. Now, working as a volunteer ombudsman, he said the biggest problem in reserve-employer relationships often boils down to communication.
Business owners, general managers and human resources directors generally know that they are required to reinstate reservists and guardsmen to the same or similar job they held before they reported for military duty, he said. "The problem is that line managers don't necessarily know about it," he said. "That's often where the problems come in."
To help minimize these problems, ESGR ombudsman work to educate employers about their legal responsibilities and reserve component members about their rights.
"We're the messenger," said Herman Garrett, an ombudsman from Florida. "We tell the employer what the law requires. It's not a hard job, but it's a very important job."
Ombudsmen encourage guardsmen and reservists to be as forthcoming with their employers as possible about any upcoming military obligations, to minimize workplace problems down the road.
And when the employers and employees run into a problem related to the employee's military service, the ombudsmen serve as intermediaries to help resolve the issue.
"The first step is to make sure they're talking to each other," said Dave Bush, who became an ombudsman in West Virginia after serving 24 years in the Air Force, then 18 years administering the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act program at the Department of Labor.
Bush said he always encourages reservists to take the first step in resolving employer issues. When that doesn't work, he picks up the telephone or visits the employer personally to discuss the problem.
"The trick is to not come down too heavy handed," he said. "It works much better when you try to come up with a workable solution."
Garrett said he and other ombudsmen resolve about 95 percent of the cases they receive. The small percentage they can't settle get turned over to the Department of Labor for further action.
Barbara Leonard, senior ombudsman at the ESGR headquarters in Arlington, Va., said the ombudsmen enable the committee to stretch its resources to reach more employers and to help more guardsmen and reservists.
"The ombudsmen are essential to our success, because without our volunteers, we could never get the word out as well as we do," she said. "They represent us in a way that would never be possible without them."
Herb Lockette, an ESGR ombudsman from Alabama, said the gratification of the job, with its long hours and lack of pay, comes from helping the guardsmen and reservists who are putting their civilian lives on the line and on hold -- to serve their country.
"These men and women are going off into harm's way for their country," he said. "They deserve anything we can do for them, including giving them their jobs back when they return."
Every once in a while, ombudsmen say they receive the greatest reward of all: a personal thank you from a guardsman or reservist they have helped. "One thank you covers a whole lot of telephone calls," said Garrett.
By helping protect service members' jobs and job benefits, many ombudsmen say they believe they are protecting something even bigger: the reserve component force.
"We're definitely helping preserve the force," said Garrett. "Without us, we (the U.S. military) would lose a whole lot of men and women."