By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 21, 2009 - Wyoming's committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve has been busy for 18 months preparing businesses that will be hard-hit by the largest reserve deployment in state history. The state is readying nearly 1,000 troops -- more than half of its Army National Guard soldiers and more than a third of its total Guard force -- for deployment to Iraq and Kuwait in April. The impact has been felt throughout the nation's least-populous state, and nearly every community is affected, top leaders say.
"The effect is pretty much the same everywhere, but because we are a low-population state and we're talking such high numbers, ... the effect is amplified in our state," Janet Cowley, the state chair for the Wyoming ESGR committee, said in an interview Jan. 9.
Fortunately, for this deployment, the Cheyenne-based 115th Fires Brigade has known for about 18 months that it would deploy. The ESGR program has used the extra time to increase its information and education efforts with employers across the state, Cowley said.
In Wyoming, the ESGR program has a volunteer director and chair and one paid administrative person. More than 30 trained volunteers are scattered across the state. Two ombudsmen are trained to mediate issues between employers and troops.
The staff and volunteers meet regularly with employers, community leaders and civic organizations. One ESGR representative recently traveled across the state with the brigade leadership, briefing at community meetings and meeting with local business leaders.
Wherever there is a military presence in the state, there is a trained ESGR representative, Cowley said.
"We push the communication issue pretty far to make sure that they know that they can come to us whenever they need to," Cowley said.
The size of this deployment has left many employers, especially smaller ones, in a pinch -- caught between wanting to support the troops and suffering from losing them to extended training weekends, longer annual trainings and frequent deployments, Cowley said.
Cowley met this month with senior leaders of the state's highway patrol. Law enforcement agencies have been hit especially hard in the state, with one county losing nine of its deputies to the deployment.
Cowley said that nearly all employers she has met with say they want to support the troops. Many in Wyoming offer to pay deploying soldiers any difference in their salaries between their military and civilian pay. Also, many give troops additional paid time off for military training.
But, she said, many are finding it difficult to maintain staff schedules as the soldiers are pulled out for days and weeks for training in preparation for the deployment. It is especially hard on those agencies that operate 24 hours daily, such as law enforcement and health care, and on small businesses that have very little depth in their employee pool.
"We have to protect the rights of those military members. They cannot and should not be discriminated against," Cowley said. "But nobody's made a law that stands up for the rights of these employers that have to let these folks go. They have to keep their business going.
"How do you do it all and keep everybody happy?" she asked.
Cowley said the state's low unemployment rate doesn't help, either.
"We don't have a lot of extra people running around unemployed," she said. "The folks that they're taking oftentimes ... aren't people they can replace easily."
Cowley said her biggest challenge is getting the support promised from senior executives to filter down to midlevel supervisors, who work the schedules and who may not understand the law. While some employers may overlook the laws supporting reservists, she said, most infractions are the result of misunderstandings or ignorance.
And most times communication is the simple resolution, she said.
"There are answers to the issues. Most of the time communication answers the problem," Cowley said. "We need that military member to provide the communication to the employer, and we need the employer to understand what their requirements are under the ... law."
Servicemembers need to understand their obligations to the employers and "do the right thing," she said.
"If I could have one slide at a briefing, it would say communicate, communicate, communicate," Cowley said. "Talk to each other. Tell your employer what's going on in your military world, and as an employer, talk to your military member about what they need on their schedule.
"It's all about getting the information funneled to the people who need it," Cowley said.