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Published: Saturday, 6/2/2007

Toledo area firms support citizen soldiers

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Melanie Grosjean nominated her employer, Woodlane Residential Services, for an award given to cooperative employers of military reservists. Melanie Grosjean nominated her employer, Woodlane Residential Services, for an award given to cooperative employers of military reservists.
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IT ISN'T exactly a limousine. But Navy reservist Mike Nye definitely makes an impression when he pulls his 18-wheeler into Rickenbacker Air National Guard base near Columbus for weekend maneuvers.

The unusual mode of transportation is one way that Mr. Nye's boss, Findlay trucking executive Toby Jenkins, makes life easier for the reservist.

"He'll give me a load going to Columbus so I can drive the truck straight to the base," said Mr. Nye, of Kirby, Ohio, in Wyandot County

More than four years into the war in Iraq, with many Americans tiring of the conflict, officials say that employers overall continue to show tolerance and understanding despite frequent absences of employees in the National Guard and military reserve.

"For the most part, we haven't had many problems," said World War II-era veteran Harland Groves, who oversees a voluntary dispute mediation program in Ohio for a U.S. Defense Department agency known as Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

The Department of Labor, which enforces laws barring workforce discrimination against members of the military, tells a similar story.

The number of returning military personnel who have experienced problems rose slightly in fiscal 2006 to one in 95 from one in 114 in the prior two years. But that's much better than during the first Iraq war, when one in 54 service members took flak on the job front.

In raw numbers, alleged violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act investigated by the Labor Department's Veterans Employment and Training Service rose 14 percent last year to 1,548.

Mike Nye's employer arranges for him to drive an 18-wheeler to a Guard base near Columbus for weekend maneuvers. Mike Nye's employer arranges for him to drive an 18-wheeler to a Guard base near Columbus for weekend maneuvers.
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Complaints typically involve members of the military reserve and National Guard who say they lost jobs, pay, or benefits because they were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.

In Ohio last year, the Labor Department fielded 67 complaints, down from 87 in 2002, before the Iraq war. The number of complaints in 2006 was large enough to rank Ohio fourth highest, behind Texas, California, and South Carolina. Michigan had 51 complaints, down from 61 in 2005.

But officials at the Labor Department aren't concerned about the rate of complaints in Ohio or nationwide.

"As a result of greater awareness and understanding among employers and service members, increased technical guidance, and better-trained investigators we are seeing nearly two times less complaints per 100 demobilizations than were filed" during the first war in Iraq, they said in a report.

Mr. Groves, of Mansfield, oversees a cadre of 35 volunteer ombudsmen who mediate disputes in Ohio. Problems they are unable to resolve are kicked up to the Labor Department for further action.

Mr. Groves forecasts 170 complaints for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That's down a few dozen from the prior year. And the program has referred just six complaints to the Labor Department.

"The typical problem involves a medium to small employer without a large human resources department that understands the law," said Mr. Groves. Often, the problem is rectified simply by explaining what is required.

Many complaints are found to be groundless. The problems arose not from the employee's military service but his or her work performance. "They try to use the military as a scapegoat," Mr. Groves said.

That isn't always the case, however.

An Army reservist from Cincinnati was awarded $84,000 last year by a federal court judge who found that Pepsi-

Americas reneged on a promise to make up the difference between his military pay and wages as a truck driver for Pepsi while away at training.

Pepsi has appealed.

Many service personnel have no complaints about the way they have been treated.

Forty-five reservists and National Guard members in Ohio nominated their employers to receive the Defense Department's Freedom Award for the "outstanding support" they provided to employees in the military.

In northwest Ohio, nominees include Advance Engineering Co., Northwood; BlackHawk Express, Findlay; IHS Total Services, Oak Harbor; Sears Auto Center, Findlay; Wood Lane Residential Services, Bowling Green; and Toledo Fire Division Emergency Medical Services.

Mr. Nye, the truck driver, nominated his employer, BlackHawk Express, because of "the little things."

"They have never complained about anything," said the 30-year-old, who was sent to the Middle East in 2004. BlackHawk is owned by Toby and Molly Jenkins.

Not all employers are understanding, said Mr. Nye, a married father of two who is with a Columbus-based unit that trains other military personnel to operate heavy equipment.

Interested in finding a job that would keep him home more, Mr. Nye landed an interview last year at a trucking firm where, when the interviewer found out he was in the reserves, "acted like it would be a chore to hire me."

During his Middle East deployment, his boss, Mr. Jenkins, offered to assist Mr. Nye's wife if she needed help.

And dispatchers sent e-mails to update him on workplace developments.

Air Force reservist Melanie Grosjean, a residential supervisor at Wood Lane Residential, which provides housing for mentally challenged people, is happy about how she and other reservists have been treated at work.

"Over the years, Wood Lane has been very accommodating," she said.

When a fellow reservist recently left for Iraq, co-workers organized a send-off that included a PowerPoint presentation about his mission.

The agency has tried to accommodate the schedule of the man's wife, a Wood Lane employee who has a small child and another on the way, Ms. Grosjean said.

"It's not an imposition," said Rob Buchanan, manager of a Sears store in Findlay, where the automotive department has been nominated for a freedom award.

"It's quite an honor to be nominated," he said. The chain makes up the difference between a deployed employee's military pay and company pay.

Because of the length of the Iraq War, company officials recently decided to extend that program to a maximum of five years from three, the manager said.

Additionally, Sears and its sister chain, Kmart Corp., are accepting donations at stores nationwide to renovate and equip the home of a soldier wounded in the war.

The firm was nominated by Army National Guard member Derek Welch, a 24-year-old salesman from Rawson, in Hancock County.

He said his transition back into the workforce was seamless when he returned from Iraq last year.

"They never gave my any grief and I had no problems keeping my full-time status," said Mr. Welch, who is with the 73rd Troop Command at Camp Perry in Ottawa County.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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