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We need legislation to cover the US Guard and Reserve [Commentary]

May 11, 2017 (Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Anthony L. Taylor/U.S. Army)
It’s time to be honest about the Guard and the Reserve — despite their name and low-commitment reputation, it’s been a long time since serving as a member of the Reserve component, or RC, has truly consisted of one weekend a month and two weeks of training in the summer.

The RC has been a consistent source of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, used to ameliorate the operational tempo and strain on the active-duty force. However, rhetoric surrounding the “total force” concept is only now catching up with reality, and there’s a moral imperative for legislation and policy to do the same. Congress should update the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, also know as USERRA, to reflect the increased training commitments of today’s force and consider additional tax benefits such as deductions for hiring reservists and tax exemptions for "differential pay."

The role of the RC has shifted from “a strategic reserve to an operational force." High-demand Army National Guard units are facing an increase of training days up to 60 a year over the course of four years, while the Air National Guard is trying to negotiate with employers, recognizing that airmen often work 60-80 days a year to meet necessary training demands. As training increases, leaders cite a focus on predictability to try and mitigate the impact on families and employers, yet this may not be enough.

Though the RC is more operational than ever, there has been no legislative action reflecting this change to ensure the men and women serving in the Guard have the necessary legal protections to do so effectively. A recent memo to the Massachusetts National Guard notes: “We will constantly be challenged by operational demand, the urgency of readiness requirements, and the constraint of time as a reserve component of the Army.”

This commitment places both employers and service members alike in a bind. Particularly for small businesses, there can be reticence to employ a person who may be gone for a significant portion of the year, with fears over staying open, the bottom line and the requirement to hold a job even if someone must be replaced due to a deployment. While substantial tax credits exist for employing veterans, it might be prudent to consider similar benefits for employers who endeavor to employ members of the RC. Though USERRA compliance is the law, efforts should be made to reward employers who go above and beyond current requirements.

Current tax credits for employing a veteran range from $1,200 to $9,600 and should be matched for hiring a member of the RC. Additionally, the government should consider providing incentives for employers who enact "differential pay" policies that help offset any salary difference when reservists are activated. This could include making those salaries tax-free or tax-deductible, as many states already do for active-duty military salaries. More than simply incentivizing the employment of our citizen soldiers, this could help further the bond between communities and those who serve, as well as offering additional economic benefits. No one is well-served by small businesses who suffer as a result of USERRA compliance, perhaps even leaving service members without a job to which they can return.

Though initially these efforts may seem costly, it could quickly prove cost-neutral to the government by improving recruiting, retention, and readiness. It's critical to maintaining the total force that we ensure reservists are able to maintain their civilian careers and that businesses are not jeopardized by hiring reservists.

Just as the demand on the armed forces has continued to increase, so has the strain placed on those who bridge the civil-military divide by blending civilian careers with service to nation. It is incumbent upon both service leadership and Congress to more explicitly acknowledge the shift in mission, and accompany this shift with a broader plan as to how to enable personnel and businesses to continue to bridge this divide.

Members of the reserve component must grapple with the demands of both worlds — bearing the burdens of those who serve while also maintaining a civilian job, often working for employers with little understanding as to the commitments of military service. Congress needs to play its part in supporting reservists by updating USERRA and insisting on compliance.

Amy Schafer is a research associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

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