Going 'above and beyond' for workers called up to serve

As National Guard personnel continue to be shipped out around the globe, some have found that their Kentucky employers are working to ease their minds while overseas.

Employers like automaker Toyota, which has its largest North American plant in Georgetown, and Kentucky Utilities parent company E.ON U.S. make up the difference in pay between what the Guard pays and what the employer pays.

And that's just some of the monetary efforts that happen at companies, said Harry Wiley, volunteer state public affairs director for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

"There are a number of ways companies can show above and beyond care to their soldiers," he said.

Toyota has won two national awards from ESGR for its assistance to those serving in the military. Under its plan, Toyota supplements employees' military base pay to get them up to what they would be earning in base pay at Toyota.

The company covers up to 10 work days annually for military leave for training, as well as up to 30 days for leave for public emergencies, said Mike Price, general manager of human resources.

For those on active military leave, Toyota covers them throughout their service.

The company put the program in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"No one really anticipated these engagements would go so long, but we feel really strongly about supporting our team members who are sacrificing so much to be in the military and be in these wars," Price said.

At the Georgetown plant, there are more than 50 workers who are active in the Reserves. The plant has four members on leave currently, Price said.

Toyota's North American manufacturing headquarters in Northern Kentucky recently welcomed back one such person.

Kevin Thornberry, manager of production control and logistics, had been in Afghanistan since last December in a role supporting the Special Forces.

While he was gone, Toyota allowed him to keep his company vehicle and fuel card, allowing his wife and two children to use it.

And the supplementary pay "certainly takes the burden off while you're gone," Thornberry said.

Among the burdens lifted was lawn care, because his co-workers came by and mowed.

Also, Thornberry's departure came soon after he applied for and received a promotion.

He said the company, despite knowing he would be gone for six months, kept him in the running and chose him.

"Even though they knew I wasn't going to be able to support them in the short-term, they were willing to look beyond that and make a sacrifice as well," he said. "I've had nothing but a very positive experience through this whole thing."

It's similar to the experience that Bergin Tuttle, who works in human resources at the Georgetown plant, had while he was on active military duty between October 2004 and February 2006.

"They made up probably 55 percent of my normal pay, a big chunk really," he said. "It helped out my wife a lot."

And Tuttle, who worked in body paint on the assembly line at the time, said his co-workers sent him numerous care packages.

"I got not boxes, but cases, of Girl Scout cookies," he said. "I made sure everybody in the company got boxes of Girl Scout cookies."

Price said the plant pays the postage for care packages that family members, friends and co-workers send. In the past few years, it has shipped around 600.

And because of Toyota's supplementary pay program, Tuttle was essentially still on the job and continued his perfect attendance streak.

During the plant's 2004 perfect attendance contest, he won $5,000 "while sitting in Baghdad."

"I got the e-mail and thought they were joking," he said.

Wiley, of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, called Toyota "one of the fine examples in the commonwealth."

"I can tell you that above and beyond comes in several different shapes and sizes," he added. "Some companies continue company health care plans ... so you may be fortunate enough to have two insurance plans covering your illnesses."

Utility E.ON U.S. does that in addition to supplementing pay, said spokesman Cliff Feltham.

"We'll make sure you're taken care of back home and don't necessarily need to worry about that," Feltham said.

Since 2003, the company has had 39 military leave requests, Feltham said.

And the companies have continued their programs despite the economic downturn.

"It is a cost," said Price of Toyota. "It's probably more of a burden on us today with the current financial crisis and Toyota losing money just like all the automotive companies are losing money.

"But it's still the right thing to do."