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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

Companies improve military leave policies

By Stephanie Armour
USA Today

Dozens of major employers are making changes to provide more generous military leave policies despite the economic downturn and cost-cutting crunch.

At least 70 major employers are enhancing benefits, according to the Reserve Officers Association, including Safeway, Honeywell, IBM, Intel, Verizon, Wal-Mart and FleetBoston Financial.

Here's what some are doing:

• AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical firm based in Wilmington, Del., will continue to pay workers at their full salary, minus their military pay, for up to six months. Where possible under benefit plans, they will continue to provide dental, medical and vision during that time.

"We want to be an employer of choice and offer the best benefits we can," says Karen Lort, senior manager of health and welfare benefits. Three AstraZeneca workers have been called to serve. The firm has more than 30 workers in the active reserves.

• St. Paul Cos. in Minnesota decided to extend its military leave policy. The insurance firm will give regular salary for up to 12 months to those on active duty, excluding military pay. Benefits such as health insurance also will be extended.

"It was a gesture of good will and support to our employees and the cause," spokeswoman Andrea Wood says.

• Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto, Calif., increased its benefits for those who serve to provide 60 percent of salary for up to a year and provide health insurance at the regular rate for two years.

"It's geared toward attracting and maintaining talent," says spokeswoman Diane Carlini, adding that the firm has an estimated 40 workers in the Reserves or National Guard.

• United Parcel Service is providing healthcare coverage to employees' dependents and making up the difference between workers' military and regular pay. And every week, UPS employees at the local levels contact family members of those called to active service to inquire about special needs. The company estimates it has up to 5,000 reservists.

"That's the family atmosphere of UPS," spokesman Steve Holmes says. "They call to check on them, to see if they need their yards mowed or kids watched, to see if they can help them out."

While such steps may be harder for smaller companies, some larger firms are expanding benefits so those who serve don't face financial hardship if their military pay is lower than their regular pay.

Under federal law, those who are called to active duty may also qualify for temporary interest rate caps on mortgages and credit card loans and protection from eviction.

Employers are required to provide certain benefits. They must give those who serve in the reserves the right to request re-employment for up to five years and, depending on health plan policies, allow employees to continue purchasing healthcare coverage for at least 18 months.