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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 12, 2001

Employers adjust to war

By Susan Hooper
Advertiser Staff Writer

As a liaison officer with 16 years experience in the Hawai'i Army National Guard, David Kikau Jr. knows he may be called up at any time for duty in the country's war against terrorism. In case that happens, Kikau has done what he can to minimize disruption for his employer, The Queen's Medical Center.

David Kikau Jr., a security operations manager at The Queen's Medical Center, is a 16-year member of the National Guard. "In the event I am activated, I feel comfortable and confident that my subordinates can continue on the mission here at Queen's," he said.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Kikau, a security operations manager at Queen's, said he was told by the Guard long ago that "we always had to be prepared." As a result, he spent a year training the 14 security officers who report to him to become leaders in such activities as crisis intervention, crash and rescue work and the medical center's bike patrol.

"They were able to do it before, but now they're able to take charge," said Kikau, 41, who has been with the medical center more than 20 years. "In the event I am activated, I feel comfortable and confident that my subordinates can continue on the mission here at Queen's."

Across the state and the country, thousands of employers are getting a short course in adjusting to the void left by employees called up for military service. A Sept. 14 order by President Bush has brought more than 54,600 reservists nationwide into military action. In Hawai'i at least 500 reservists with the Hawai'i Army and Air National Guard have been called up.

Perhaps the highest-profile reservist is Robert Fishman, chief executive officer of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority and a colonel in the Army Reserve. Fishman reported for duty at the Pentagon a week ago. But there are hundreds of others as well, and for those Hawai'i employers already suffering from the sharp economic downturn that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the knowledge that they could lose key workers for several months or more may be just one more piece of bad news.

Still, spokesmen for the Hawai'i National Guard say they have tried to lessen the impact on employers by asking first for volunteers among their reserves.

"Individuals who can get time off are usually selected first," said Maj. Charles Anthony, public affairs officer with the Hawai'i National Guard.

Federal law provides job protection
 •  A 1994 federal law requires employers to let employees in the National Guard and Reserves be excused from work for military duty.
 •  The law also essentially requires employers to have similar positions available for reservists upon their return and to reinstate them to at least their previous salary and benefits.
 •  For more information on this law, see the Web site of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
Troops on duty at Honolulu International Airport come from the 1st Battalion of the Hawai'i Army National Guard's 487th Field Artillery. Capt. Robert Lesher, training officer with the 487th, said that in selecting the reservists, "we wanted to make sure they avoided employer conflict."

"We're not taking the whole unit," he said. "The percentage we're activating is kind of small."

As difficult as it may be for some Hawai'i employers to lose key people to military service, the call-up of reservists does have some advantages in tough economic times, Anthony said.

Some of the more than 25,400 Hawai'i employees who have filed for unemployment since the terrorist attacks are reservists who have found other work by volunteering for duty. In other cases, managers facing painful staff cutbacks willingly let reservists volunteer in order to save another position.

"I know for a fact there was one person who had worked in the hotel industry," Anthony said of a Hawai'i Army National Guard member. "He himself was not looking at having his hours cut back, but his activation meant that somebody else at the hotel would continue to not be furloughed or get their hours cut back."

Another plus for employers is that the number of reservists being called up now, while significant, represents just a fraction of the approximately 577,700 people employed in Hawai'i. As a result, the odds are small of one company having a sizable number of reservists on its payroll.

"A lot of companies have National Guardsmen," said Brian Tamamoto, managing director of Human Resources Solutions, a Honolulu consulting firm. "They're actually spread out all over."

Some of Hawai'i's larger employers say they have proportionately few reservists on staff and that while losing them to active duty is distressing, it has not been disruptive.

"At this point, although we've had several people who have been called up, it is not really having any major impact on our operations," said Lynne Unemori, director of corporate communications with Hawaiian Electric Co., which has about 2,000 employees state-wide. "We've pretty much been able to work around that. It's not as though we've had a mass exodus of folks."

For smaller employers, however, the loss of a key staffer to military service can mean some tough decisions.

Hawaiian Flour Mills on Nimitz Highway has just 26 employees, with two full-timers and one part-timer in the highly skilled position of grain elevator operator. One of the full-time operators is in the Hawai'i Army National Guard and may be called up to active duty, said Corey Nakamoto, the company's administrative services manager.

"Like most employers, we are supportive, and we're glad that he's willing to contribute his time and his skills," Nakamoto said. But at the same time, the employee's departure would mean that the company would have to either ask the part-time operator — who worked full-time until his retirement — to return to full-time work or bring in another grain operator from one of the parent company's other mills on the Mainland.

Bringing in an operator would entail travel expenses, some additional training "because each elevator is not exactly alike," and housing and transportation costs, Nakamoto said.

"Because we are the only flour mill and the only grain elevator in the state, the only people we have who are qualified to run this machinery are the people we employ," he said. "It takes training. It's not something that you can hire someone for and put them in place and expect them to pick up in a few days or even a few months."

In spite of any hardships caused by the call-up of reservists, however, Hawai'i employers large and small said last week they are happy to back workers who are called to serve.

"It's so important, what they're doing," said Bill McKale, store manager of the Iwilei Home Depot, which has seen five of its 312 employees called to active duty and which, like other Home Depot stores nationwide, is making up any difference between their employees' reserve pay and their Home Depot salaries.

Gary Dias, manager of security at The Queen's Medical Center, said three of his 27 full-time security workers are reservists, and one has already been called to active duty. He said he has received no indication that Kikau and the other reservist will be called up, but he is prepared if they are.

"We would still be able to manage our positions, we think, very well, because we train all of our people to be able to carry on when one of the others is missing," Dias said. "That's just good management practice. ... So I'm not worried about it. We need to support our nation. If it occurs, then so be it. We will adjust ourselves to meet this need."