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DOD program helps employers, reservists

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A Department of Defense program is easing the transition from business suit to battle dress uniform and back again for Reserve and Guard members serving throughout the world.

The national committee for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR, is a nationwide network of nearly 4,200 volunteers who facilitate communication between reservists and their civilian employers.

"We keep reservists and their civilian employers on the same sheet of music when it comes to employment of military members," said Findley Brewster, Texas ESGR Area 4 chairman. "If the communication is there, then there is less likelihood of misunderstandings or issues when it comes to employment issues."

The "issues" that can arise are primarily tied into reservists' rights, such as re-employment after a deployment or benefit retention during an absence. Most answers already exist and are spelled out in the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemploy-ment Rights Act, or USERRA.

The key components of the federal law include:

· Employers must grant leaveo Guard and Reserve employees for military activation.

· Employers must promptly re-employ Guard and Reserve employees upon satisfactory completion of military service.

· Guard and Reserve employees may not be required to use personal leave or vacation for military service.

The organization takes a proactive approach to its information mission with two outreach programs -- one directed at military members and the other at their civilian employers.

For the military outreach, ESGR volunteers are assigned to Reserve units, of which there are more than 200 in San Antonio alone, Mr. Brewster said.

"The volunteers physically go to the units and give briefings and are there to answer questions and support," Mr. Brewster said. "They usually visit pre- and post-deployment to ease the transition from civilian to military and back again." Their briefings are aimed at keeping reservists informed about their rights and responsibilities. For example, it is their responsibility to let their employers know about an upcoming deployment or drill as far in advance as possible, said Caryl Hill, ESGR state employee outreach chair. Also, employees should talk to their employer about what they learn and accomplish during their absence so bosses don't get the impression that military duty is a vacation from work.

"Communication is key," Ms. Hill said. "A healthy relationship between reservist and employer minimizes problems with military-related activities."

Program volunteers not only inform reservists about their rights and responsibilities, but also the employer through the employer outreach program.

"A lot of employers don't have any idea of how to support their reservist-employees other than not to fire them," Mr. Brewster said.

As with the military outreach, the employer outreach comprises a network of volunteers, but these volunteers visit employers to help them understand USERRA and the needs of their employees.

"Volunteers can train the top leaders of a company or managers and front-line supervisors," Ms. Hill said, adding that support starts with the employee's direct supervisor.

"Some are not supportive, so our training is aimed at educating so the support is there when needed," Ms. Hill said. The program also provides "highly trained volunteers who are able to review a company's human resources regulations to ensure they are in line with USERRA."

Along with one-on-one briefings, ESGR volunteers can also organize civilian employer orientations, which offer civilian employers a hands-on approach to understanding their reservists. The orientations give the employers a taste of military life "so they can see for themselves the importance of their employee's mission," Ms. Hill said.

Civilian employer orientations can range from a simple visit to a military installation to a ride on a Navy ship.

"Last December, we worked with a unit at Lackland Air Force Base (Texas) and took 60 civilian employers to Fort Hood (Texas) on a C-5 (Galaxy)," Ms. Hill said.

The employers spent the day at the Army post eating Army "chow" and firing guns in simulators.

"The experience was great; it gave them a much different look at what their employees go through," Ms. Hill said.

The personal experience fuels support as the employer is a witness to the importance of their employee's military mission, Ms. Hill said.

Program volunteers encourage employers to express that support through a written "statement of support," a document that restates USERRA's key points and is a way for employers to formally recognize the National Guard and Reserve as "essential to the strength of our nation and the well-being of our communities."

Through employer and military outreaches, ESGR is able to garner continued support for Guard and Reserve members throughout the world, Brewster said.

"Retention of our reservists is directly tied to the employer," he said. "It's a three-legged stool -- civilian employer, reservist and family. If one of those legs isn't whole, then the stool collapses. It's ESGR's role to make sure the employer and reservist legs stay upright."

For more information about ESGR or to arrange an outreach briefing, visit http://www.esgr.org. ESGR also needs volunteers to support its various programs; for more information, call (800) 336-4590.

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