Temporarily Single Parents

By May 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, May 2003Employers can help reservists' families battle the tough times during deployment.

Karin Henigan had only three weeks to prepare for her husband’s departure for the Middle East when the Marine Corps activated his Reserve unit in early January. That was not enough time to get used to the idea that her husband, Maj. Larry Henigan, would be gone for at least a year, or to contemplate how complicated life would be as a suddenly single working mother of two kids, ages 15 and 11.

“In situations like this, you just react and do it because you have to,” Henigan says. “I have to keep my sense of humor and laugh about it or I’d probably just end up falling to pieces.” In addition to motherhood demands, Henigan has a full-time job as office manager for Berger Instruments Inc. in Newark, Del. Henigan and her husband shared child care responsibilities, such as taking their kids to school and shuttling them to after-school activities.

“It’s tough to get them to all their different activities, because Larry would take our son to his sporting events, and I’d make sure our daughter got to her cheerleading practices. Now I have to do it all,” Henigan says. “I don’t want our kids to miss out on the activities they love and [I want] to keep things as normal as possible for them.”

It’s important to keep everyone’s spirits up while her husband is away, she says.

Joy Winslow understands Henigan’s predicament all too well. Her husband, Capt. Jeffrey Winslow, a reservist in the Army’s Special Forces 7th Group, left in early January for his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. She is taking care of their two children, ages 9 and 15, while working full time as a programmer/analyst for the city of Fayetteville, N.C. Winslow has a complex schedule, driving her kids to school, arranging babysitters, making sure a friend or relative can transport her kids to after-school activities and, of course, working.

“My husband and I always shared the child care duties. He’d always take our 15-year-old daughter to school in the morning and would normally be available to pick both kids up in the afternoons,” she says with a sigh. “His first deployment was during the summer, so that was much easier to work through.” The latest deployment is tougher. “It happened right in the middle of the school year, and, frankly, I’m having a tough time getting to work on time every morning.”

Thousands of men and women throughout the United States are facing similar challenges. The war in the Middle East and the ongoing fight against terrorism have contributed to the largest activation of Reserve forces since the first Persian Gulf War. By March, when the United States launched the latest attack on Iraq, nearly 213,000 Reserve and National Guard troops were on active duty. The military is requiring many of them to serve extended tours of duty.

“The days of the weekend warriors are long gone,” says Dave Patel, manager of corporate relations for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) in Arlington, Va. “No longer does being a reservist mean you serve a weekend every month and a couple of weeks of active duty per year. These are long-term military commitments that are lasting for at least a year and, in some cases, two years.”

A Hidden Impact

As the challenges facing Henigan and Winslow show, employers can be significantly affected by Reserve deployments—even when their own employees are not reservists. But many employers don’t know the scope of this potential problem.

“We don’t keep data on employees who are either spouses or family members of reservists on active duty,” says Sharon Cohen-Hager, director of media relations for Verizon Communications in Dallas.

Verizon’s response is typical: Companies simply don’t track the data and, therefore, don’t seem to have a complete picture of how the massive call-up affects employees’ lives.

But that impact on employees—and their employers—will keep growing as more reservists are called up, says Michael Royer, program manager for quality of life with the U.S. Marine Forces Reserve in New Orleans.

Employer awareness is key to helping reservists’ family members, Royer emphasizes. He suggests that employers survey their staffs via e-mail or a short questionnaire to determine which employees have been or might be directly affected by the reservist call-up. The survey should ask about support services these employees need or want, he says.

If the Reserve activation has affected a significant number of employees, then the employer should consider joining ESGR, because the information and networking opportunities the organization provides could be invaluable, Royer says. For example, ESGR helps employers learn about their rights and responsibilities under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) when employees in the Reserves are called to active duty. Also, joining ESGR indicates that the employer will support reservists.

Each branch of the armed services has a family preparedness support network that provides information about child care and health care, as well as opportunities to meet with families who are facing similar hardships due to deployment. “The DOD is well aware that reservist call-ups have a tremendous impact on businesses, and the department wants to partner and work with employers to get through this,” says Royer, who works for the Marine Corps national family awareness program. “We are all in this together, and we certainly need the help and support of employers to make it work.”

Employers Step In

Both Henigan and Winslow readily admit that their employers’ support and compassion have kept their lives from completely spinning out of control.

“My saving grace has been that my manager has been just great and understands my situation well,” Winslow says. “He knows exactly why I don’t show up for work on time, and that’s OK with him. He trusts me. And that might seem like a small thing, but it’s a real comfort for me.”

Henigan echoes Winslow’s sentiments. “Managing the logistics really has been the toughest part for me,” she says. “Everyone at work understands my current situation, and my boss is always telling me to take whatever time I need to take care of my kids. I couldn’t make it through the day without that kind of support mechanism.”

Some employers have made awareness and compassion their mantra as they look for ways to help employees who are affected by Reserve deployments. (See Web Extras “Above and Beyond an Employer’s Duty.”)

“We constantly emphasize [to supervisors] the importance of being aware and sensitive to employees’ needs,” says Barb Nicholas, interim HR analyst for the city of Fayetteville’s personnel service department. “Since we do have a large Army base here [Fort Bragg], our awareness level is probably a bit higher than other cities and employers,” she says. “This attitude has engendered a strong working atmosphere and sense of family among our staff.”

Nicholas also knows quite a bit about being a working mother of two with a military husband serving overseas. Her husband, Staff Sgt. John Nicholas, was deployed to Afghanistan in mid-December with the 82nd Airborne Division.

“He’s a career Army officer, so we’ve been through deployments and separations before, so I’m used to it,” she says. “It’s still a tough juggling job, but I have a great boss who’s very supportive, and we also have a great staff here and we really watch out for each other.”

Increased Demand for Work/Life Benefits

Employer support for the families of reservists can take many different forms. For example, temporarily single parents may need help finding and paying for dependent care.

“We definitely saw a spike in demand for dependent care services right after 9/11,” says Sandy Eagan, a manager for Work/Life Benefits, a benefits outsourcing firm in Valencia, Calif. “That demand tapered off and has remained relatively stable since then. But that’s not to say it won’t change as things heat up in the Mideast,” Eagan noted shortly before the war began.

Eagan says that one Work/Life client, a large national corporation that is a work/life trend leader, called recently to inquire about dependent care benefits. “I would call it a bellwether company, so the fact that they are looking into the issue could mean it’s something businesses probably will have more interest in during the coming months.”

An employer-led effort during the mid- to late 1990s to provide work/life benefits such as dependent care and flexible schedules has prepared businesses to support employees affected by Reserve deployment, says Thad Hamilton, SPHR, a certified employment benefits specialist and an HR consultant with TRI-AD Actuaries Inc. in Escondido, Calif.

Hamilton recently performed an informal survey of how the Reserve activation is affecting employers in the San Diego area, the site of Naval Station San Diego, which is the home base for some 60 Navy ships and 50 commands.

“All of the employers I contacted felt very good about their work/life benefits programs and felt confident that they easily could handle any extra demands from their workforces,” Hamilton says. “But once that stretches out over time, the confidence level definitely drops. This indicates to me there is a lot of concern among employers that the military action and subsequent Reserve call-up will be prolonged and eventually disrupt the productivity of their workforces.”

Keeping Families Informed

While dependent care and flexible work schedules are welcome benefits, supplemental benefits such as life insurance and long-term disability insurance are also important to Reserve families, says the city of Fayetteville’s Nicholas.

“Since we are a municipality, we do have quite a few budget constraints, which limits our ability to extend a wide variety of benefits to reservists and their families,” she says. “We’d like to do more, but our hands are tied. However, we have found that the supplemental benefits are very popular.”

However, of all the benefits provided by employers to the reservists and their families, health care insurance seems to be the most important. USERRA requires employers to provide reservists and their families health care coverage under COBRA—just as if an employee had terminated his or her employment. Some employers do provide more coverage.

Confusion over which benefits packages are available is possible as spouses try to deal with the unfamiliar processes and procedures of the HR function at the reservist’s workplace.

For instance, as Henigan scrambled to arrange transportation and after-school supervision for her children, she received a letter from her husband’s employer, the Newark, Del.-based W.L. Gore Associates Inc., saying her health insurance coverage would lapse on Feb. 28. The letter arrived during the first week of February, a week after her husband shipped out, leaving her with just three weeks to find alternate health care while also dealing with the added stress of sudden single parenthood.

“The letter offered COBRA coverage, but that’s very expensive, considering my husband is only receiving military pay now,” Henigan says.

She immediately contacted the HR department for the Gore division that employs her husband. An HR associate told Henigan that the letter had to be a mistake and said she would follow up with the corporate offices, but she discovered that the letter did reflect company policy. While that reply wasn’t what Henigan had hoped for, the company policy was in compliance with USERRA.

Henigan panicked. She had to find health care coverage for her family. “I know it was in their rights to do it, but, frankly, I just didn’t need that headache right then,” she says.

Henigan’s own employer immediately offered health care coverage for her family, but that plan would have required her to change doctors for all her family members. The thought of finding new doctors and then making sure the medical records were transferred was stressful, so she eventually selected Tri-Care, the military health insurance plan.

Then, in early March, W.L. Gore told Henigan that, after reviewing its policy, the company had decided to continue complete health insurance coverage to reservists and their families for 90 days after deployment. Company officials also said they would improve communications to prevent the kind of surprise that Henigan received.

“Unfortunately communication breakdowns will happen, but we have always been very sensitive and responsive to the concerns of our associates,” says Ed Schneider, a spokesperson for W.L. Gore, which has been listed by Fortune magazine as one of the 100 best companies to work for. “We realize that the transition for the families of reservists can be very hard. And by providing this extra coverage, hopefully we now can help make that transition just a bit easier.”

Gore has 6,000 employees, 4,000 of them in the United States. About 90 Gore employees are reservists; 20 of those are on active duty as of early March. Gore is planning to review and change its communications processes, Schneider says. (See sidebar “Keeping in Touch with Reservists and Their Families.”)

Any extra effort to provide support to and improve communications with the families of deployed reservists is appreciated. Both Henigan and Winslow say that it’s a comfort to them and their families just to know that people want to help.

“Even though I haven’t used all the support offered to me, it’s nice to know people will be there when I do need help,” Henigan says.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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