By John Taylor

As more and more Nebraska reservists and National Guard members are pulled off jobs for active duty, their civilian employers need to realize they are reporting for duty, too, say military and legal authorities.

"Employers have become part of the Department of Defense team whether they wanted to be or not," said Leonard Krenk, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1999 after 45 years in the Nebraska National Guard.

These days, Krenk is one of six people in Nebraska who act as ombudsmen to mediate disputes between employers and employees who are called to active duty.

He's also among about 50 members of the Nebraska committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserves. The committee - there's one in every state - is a volunteer organization that helps educate business executives with employees in the reserves and Guard. Most companies comply fully with the 1994 federal law that protects employees who are mobilized.

But Maj. Michael Deger, executive director of the Nebraska committee, said a number of service members have voiced complaints or have raised questions about issues surrounding their activation.

There's still enough misunderstanding - as well as outright noncompliance by some companies - to create problems for employees, according to the authorities.

One reason why companies may run afoul of the law is that it's tougher than a mess hall steak.

In a monthly newsletter on labor issues distributed by the Omaha law firm of Erickson & Sederstrom, the law - the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA - was described this way:

"It's so strict that it makes the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act look like 90-pound weaklings."

The Department of Defense puts an employer's obligations another way:

"Providing an adequate national defense requires citizens who are willing to serve, and others who respect that service and are willing to support it."

Another reason for disputes between employees and their bosses over military issues, Krenk said, is that fewer heads of companies these days have had military experience - less than 10 percent, according to the Defense Department.

The law, USERRA, spells out how others, like companies, are required to support the troops.

The Erickson & Sederstrom newsletter - directed to clients who are mostly employers - lists some of the more important requirements:

The law offers protection for employees who are gone from work for up to five years, and longer in some cases.

When possible, an employee must give reasonable notice that she will need leave. But if the employee gets short notice, so will the employer.

If a company has a health plan, it must offer it to the departing employee for 18 months, with restrictions on how much the employee is charged.

If an employee is gone for 90 days or less, an employer must promptly return the employee to the same job he would have had if he had worked during that time.

If an employee is gone for more than 90 days, a company may substitute a different job with the same pay, status and seniority as the job he would have had.

If an employer violates USERRA, he can be sued by the employee or the U.S. attorney general.

Disputes seldom reach courts in Nebraska and Iowa, according to the Department of Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Service, or VETS.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the complaints of 38 service members reached VETS in Iowa, 10 in Nebraska.

Of those cases, only one was referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Iowa, and none in Nebraska. After the complaints were investigated, 17 were found to have merit in Iowa, while six had merit in Nebraska and needed to be resolved by VETS.

Some complaints may never reach the federal agency. Krenk and the other mediators in Nebraska may hear and resolve problems first.

Krenk estimated he fielded complaints of 30 people last year on questions involving an employee's military service.

One dispute was triggered by complaints from a nurse in an Omaha hospital. When she returned after a year's active duty in the Nebraska Air National Guard, a supervisor told her that, instead of automatically being returned to her old job, she would have to reapply. The supervisor was violating the law. The nurse wasn't required to reapply.

The supervisor also told the nurse that she could not immediately be covered by the hospital's insurance plan but would have to wait for an open enrollment period.

That, too, was a violation of the law, which required that the nurse be covered by insurance immediately, Krenk said.

More common, he said, are the thousands of Nebraska employers that follow the law and sometimes go beyond its requirements. The committee singles out such employers for awards, such as the one given last year to Gibbon Public Schools.

The school district was cited for support of Gibbon High School Principal Julie Schnitzler when she was called to active duty following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Schnitzler, a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army Reserve, wife and mother of four children, served a year on active duty.

She was given some severance pay and help with insurance, and the community pitched in to help her husband, Craig, a teacher and coach at Kenesaw High School, with the children.

Schnitzler's experience also illustrated the problems that military mobilization sometimes causes companies or institutions, no matter how small they are.

School Superintendent Larry Sweley said the situation was unique. The job of high school principal is "such an important position in a community, and it's not one you can easily replace," he said.

Two people served as interim principals during Schnitzler's absence.

A number of companies that are based in or have major operations in Nebraska provide varying benefits to their employee-service members.

A survey of Fortune 500 companies by the Reserve Officers Association said First Data Corp. was one of three firms offering the most generous packages. First Data pays full salary to an employee on active duty. The corporation and its First Data Resources unit have 7,000 employees in Omaha.

Also singled out in the Reserve Officers Association's magazine was Union Pacific Railroad Co., which pays its reservist-employees a salary differential for as long as they are on active duty.

U.P. also maintains health and life insurance cover ages for an employee and dependents for the duration. John Bromley, a U.P. spokesman, said 460 of the railroad's employees are in the military reserves; 69, all members of unions, have been activated so far.

Of the 154 companies that responded to the Reserve Officers Association survey - Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was the only Nebraska-based company that didn't reply - 105 said they provide pay differentials for varying periods.

Besides the federal law that protects an employee's rights, legislation passed in 1999 provides help for small businesses that lose key employees, or the owner herself, to active duty.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., wrote the law when reservists were called to duty in Kosovo. He said it was prompted by problems encountered by small-business people who returned from the Persian Gulf War and found their businesses near bankruptcy or were forced to lay off employees.

The legislation gives small business owners access to low-interest disaster loans, permits them to defer SBA loan payments and offers counseling and training to the small business owner or the person left in charge.