Published March 18, 2003
WASHINGTON – When federal workers march off to war, they could be leaving most of their paychecks behind.
Unlike some private employers, the federal government does not make up the difference between military pay and the regular pay of civilian federal workers who are called up to serve in the National Guard or Reserves.
Lakia Jackson has two jobs with the Defense Department — as a civilian, she is a technician in human relations, and when she is on active duty, she is Spc. Jackson for the National Guard.
But in her active duty job, she makes a lot less than in her civilian job.
"It is a significant reduction in pay," Jackson said of her Guard pay. "I make a lot more as a technician than I do when I am on active duty."
The only way federal workers can keep their pay right now is if they use military leave — but they can only accumulate 30 days of that leave, which could be a problem with reservists being called up for months at a time.
"Many of the reservists are federal employees who get called up to serve this country, but are penalized with a lower salary," said Diane S. Witiak, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal employees.
The union is supporting a bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., that would require federal agencies to pay their employees the difference between their civilian and military wages while on active military duty.
She said the federal government is the largest peacetime employer of reserve troops.
Mikulski said the 168,000 guardsmen and reservists that are now on active military duty is a record. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, a total 230,000 guardsmen and reservists have been mobilized, including 4,000 from her state.
"Many have been called up three or four times over the past year," Mikulski said on the Senate floor last week. "This places a tremendous burden on their families, including the emotional burden of long periods of separation and the financial burden of losing pay and even losing businesses.
"We need to support our troops," she said. "This means more than speeches and parades; we need to put our thanks into actions to defend the men and women who are defending our nation. There should be a shared sacrifice."
The Office of Personnel Management did not respond to phone calls on the subject of reservist pay for federal workers. But its Web site says that reservists "will not receive any compensation from their civilian employing agency unless they elect to use military leave or annual leave."
Eligible employees get 15 days of military leave per year, and can accumulate a total of 30 days. Federal workers on active military duty may also ask to use other accrued annual leave while on duty.
A bill similar to Mikulski's was introduced Jan. 7 in the House. It calls for federally employed reservists who are put on active duty to be paid "no less than the basic pay such individual would then be receiving if no interruption in employment had occurred."
"This is a tremendous gesture to offer this to reservists," said Maj. Charles Kohler, spokesman for Maryland National Guard.
"There are quite a few that this would affect," he said, including himself.
President Bush thanked the men and women in the armed forces for their "commitment," "idealism" and "sacrifice" during a primetime press conference earlier this month. But he has not weighed in on the issue of closing the pay gap for federal workers on military duty.
"President Bush is very supportive of the troops and reservists who serve our country," said Taylor Griffin, a White House spokesman. "(But) the administration has not taken a stance on this particular piece of legislation."
Witiak said that such a bill would give federal employees and their families needed economic security and encourage other federal employees to become reservists.
"A lot of smaller, local businesses do this already," she said. "The federal government should be a model employer," — adding "this bill needs to be passed sooner than later. It's time for the federal government to walk the walk like they talk the talk."