Thursday, November 20, 2003
By Colleen Mastony
Tribune staff reporter
Posted November 19 2003
Insurer rescinds policy of firing reservists
Nov 19, 2003
Twice since the terrorist attacks of 2001, Army Reservist Anthony Marcukaitis of Carol Stream has answered his country's call to duty, and twice the insurance company he worked for fired him.
Country Insurance and Financial Services, which is based in Bloomington, Ill., said Tuesday that the action is the result of a longstanding policy: Employees who are on leave for more than 9 months are automatically terminated. But it said it rehires servicemen when they return.
Military officials say the policy violates federal law, which prohibits employers from firing people who take time off to serve in the armed forces. Companies are not required to pay salaries or benefits for soldiers on leave, but they must reinstate the person at the same level and with any benefits and promotions they would have earned had they been working.
The law dates to World War II and was strengthened in 1994 after reservists returning from the gulf war reported trouble getting jobs back and recouping benefits.
Marcukaitis, 56, a Vietnam War veteran serving in Iraq with the 814th Military Police Company, was fired days after President Bush declared this National Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Week.
The incident highlights growing confusion nationwide as companies struggle to meet their responsibilities to employees with increasingly time-consuming military obligations. Reservists who for years spent one weekend a month and two full weeks a year training, often close to home, are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq for a year or longer. Some, like Marcukaitis, are on their second lengthy deployment in two years.
A national hot line that fields questions from companies and reservists about employment issues reported that after Sept. 11, 2001, the number of calls it received nearly tripled, to 22,000 a year from 8,000.
In February, Marcukaitis left his job as an insurance adjuster, expecting to return in January. But the military extended his tour, and Marcukaitis expects to be deployed until June. He heard he had been fired Tuesday during a 5-minute 1 a.m. telephone call home to his wife, who received the termination letter from Country Insurance on Monday.
"He just said, `I can't believe they did this to me,'" said Marcukaitis's wife, Bonnie, 56. "He was hurt and brokenhearted. He said, `I don't think they understand the situation.'
"Poor excuse as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Officials at Country Insurance said they support employees' military service. They said the company gives reservists their full salary for the first 10 days of their leave, extends their benefits for 9 months and fills for 6 months any gap between company salary and military pay--none of which is required by law. The termination policy was crafted to establish consistency with disability leave, which also has a 9-month cutoff, company officials said.
"Technically he has been terminated, that is true," said Cathy Oloffson, a spokeswoman for the company. "This leave policy coincides with other leave policies. ... We believe it is [good] to have a consistent administrative policy.
"We are very proud of our employees serving in the military, and when they return, they have a job."
Since the terror attacks, the federal government has activated 350,000 guardsmen and reservists, the largest call-up since the Korean War. As mobilizations continue and deployments are extended, advocates argue, more needs to be done to educate employers about their responsibilities.
The Department of Labor opens an average of 900 cases on behalf of reservists each year. But after Sept. 11, the number of cases began increasing, with 1,200 cases in 2002 and 1,300 in 2003, according to Mike Biddle, a department spokesman.
Marcukaitis has worked for Country Insurance for five years. His status as an Army reservist had never taken him away from work for an extended period until September 2001, when his unit was dispatched to Texas to guard an Army base for 11 months.
The company issued a termination letter at the time, and Marcukaitis scrambled to respond, thinking he had lost his job, his wife said. He contacted company officials and was rehired upon his return. Marcukaitis was on the job for six months before his unit was called up again in February.
Marcukaitis hit the company's 9-month termination mark again this month.
In addition to the termination letter, Country Insurance sent Marcukaitis a second letter explaining its policy of rehiring servicemen, but that one was delivered to the firm's Insurance's Schaumburg office where he worked, rather than to his home, said Eric Schuller, an aide to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn who contacted the company on behalf of Marcukaitis.
Sun-Sentinel: Strange But True