Job protection for volunteer, part-time soldiers is coming to the forefront as Canada’s role in Afghanistan shows no sign of slowing down.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba will soon join Nova Scotia in mandating that employers hold reservists’ jobs if they volunteer for a tour of duty.
“Saskatchewan is home to approximately 900 reservists whose willingness to provide this important volunteer service deserves our support,” said Labour Minister David Forbes. “As a result of this amendment, these men and women will be able to fulfill their duty, confident of the fact that when they return home their jobs will be waiting for them.”
And that’s the way it should be, said Maj. Richard Gower, public affairs officer with the Canadian Forces Liaison Council (CFLC), which works with employers across the country to support volunteer-leave job protection.
“In a perfect world, a person should be able to volunteer and come back to a civilian position,” he said. “Even in countries (such as the United States) that have had legislation in place for a number of years, it’s necessary for us to still use a similar program to raise awareness. Legislation is not a panacea.”
Currently, there is no federal law protecting reservists’ civilian jobs if they volunteer to do a tour of duty, as 727 did last year in Afghanistan. However, the Public Safety Act says if reservists are called up to serve, employers must hold their jobs until the soldiers return.
So the Canadian Forces rely on statements of support and internally-crafted policies from businesses that allow part-time soldiers to fulfill their reservist requirements of two weeks of training a year and volunteer for duty if they want to.
“Historically, the voluntary approach has worked well for Canadian reservists,” said Gordon O’Connor, Canada’s minister of national defence. “Many employers will extend military leave on request, which lets the reservists have the time off they need to serve Canada. If a conflict arises between employer and employee, the CFLC can help negotiate a solution that works for everyone.”
The council acts as a mediator in around 40 cases a year between reservists and employers, enjoying a 90-per-cent success rate in securing job protection. The council has more than 5,000 “statements of support” from employers as big as national banks to as small as corner gas stations with 10 employees, Gower said.
“These are the people who are really committed,” he said of small companies. “It’s a lot easier for an organization with 500 or 5,000 employees to work around a leave. But one person out of 10 — that’s 10 per cent of your workforce.”
In October, reserve Maj. Harjit Sajjan returned from an eight-month tour in Afghanistan. His job as a detective constable with the Vancouver Police Department was waiting for him.
“The job guarantee made the decision a lot easier to go overseas,” he said.
With his pre-deployment training, Sajjan was away from his job for more than 13 months, but it was worth it on both fronts, he said.
“I was able to use a lot of my policing experience in Afghanistan,” he said. “I dealt with the civilian population over there a lot. And when I went back to work, I’d see a lot of correlation between military and policing.”
It’s that experience that Calgary-based airliner WestJet likes about reservists, and why the company is in the midst of drafting policies that recognize volunteer leave.
“We do a lot of recruiting from reservists,” said Tyson Matheson, director of people at WestJet. “They add tremendous value to the company, and to the country.”
WestJet has had several reservist employees in the past 10 years do tours of duty and return to their jobs. The CFLC is even honouring the company with its most supportive employer in Ontario award this June.
Reservists, new recruits and members of the public are more frequently raising the question of job protection, Gower said.
“Reservists have been more and more in demand the last couple of years, so there’s been a lot of discussion about whether job protection should be made mandatory,” he said.
Minister Forbes is “spreading the word” about provincially regulated protection, and brought the issue up at the last federal-provincial territorial meeting, said Nadine Sisk, a spokesperson for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour. Nova Scotia’s legislation came into effect November 2006 and New Brunswick is discussing the idea, Gower said. On April 5, Manitoba introduced legislation to protect the jobs and benefits of reservists.
But it’s an issue not without its potential challenges. One of the driving factors behind the U.S. enacting legislation to protect reservists’ jobs was stories of discrimination, with job applicants being denied the position because they were reservists, Gower said. However, nothing like that has been found in Canada.
Gower called Canada-wide maternity leave a “good parallel” to reservist job protection.
“Twenty-five years ago, across the country there was no such thing as maternity leave,” he said. “Most companies have dealt with that and found ways to accommodate it.”
Carly Foster is an Ajax, Ont.-based freelance writer.
Retirements start this year
Baby boomer soldiers will start reaching retirement age this year, kicking off a 13-year-long drain that will cause “a significantly higher rate of attrition than has been the norm,” a Defence Department report said.
The Canadian Forces will face increased difficulty recruiting soldiers as it competes with other companies facing the same pressures. But the goal of 70,000 military members by the end of the decade should be reached, Lt.-Cmdr. Pierre Babinsky of the Canadian Forces public affairs office said.