Stanley Adams spent more than 30 years building up his business. But he had just days to decide what to do with his thriving livestock trailer companies when he was activated for duty in Iraq in April 2003.
“My wife didn’t have a clue. I had to cram-course her and my daughter in a day and a half,” said Adams, 52, who had applied to retire from the National Guard six months before he was called up.
While he was in Iraq, his wife had to shut down one of the Montgomery, Ala., companies, and the other one barely made it. Adams’s revenue dwindled from $1.5 million in 2002 to just $250,000 in 2003.
“I had over a million dollars’ worth of trailers here. Everything came to a halt, and all this money still had to be paid,” he said.
Self-employed reservists and small-business owners who are called to duty run into problems other reservists don’t. Most employees’ jobs are protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) when they are called to duty. But small-business owners like Adams have little support to help them save companies they have labored to build.
“When you get mobilized in the National Guard, they go through to make sure you have power of attorneys, all your affairs are in order, you have insurance, make sure your wife knows what to do. They tell you about the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ act [which protects reservists called up from eviction and provides some debt relief]. That’s all real good if you’re not an owner of a business,” Adams said. “But it doesn’t affect business credit cards or business loans or business notes.”
Many small-business owners who must leave their companies behind, often at a moment’s notice, have no plan for managing the business, or for a partner to take over. As a result, they find themselves deeply in debt or forced to shut down while they serve their country. Some businesses never recover.
“USERRA doesn’t really cover self-employment, and so there is no protection per se,” said Maj. Robert Palmer, Air Force Reservist and public affairs officer for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense agency. “Obviously, mobilization can be catastrophic to someone who is self-employed or a small-business owner. There’s no question that it’s a huge challenge. A reservist who is self-employed or owns his or her own small business has to calculate the risk.”
Some lawmakers have attempted to bring attention to the situation.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in the House in February — a Senate version was introduced last month — that would provide for tax credits for employers who lose key employees to active duty, including themselves.
A small-business owner could be eligible for up to $42,000 in tax credits under the Lantos bill.
But that’s no help to those who have been called up during recent conflicts.
Robert Kalb, an orthopedic surgeon in Toledo, has been a Navy reservist since 1999 and was called to duty about nine months ago. “I had a lot of friends injured and killed in Vietnam, and I thought, it’s a huge sacrifice people make and you have to do your part,” he said. However, he didn’t expect his sacrifice to include the possibility of losing his medical practice.
Kalb, deployed to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, was told he would be gone “for a year or two.”
“The experience has been extremely difficult,” Kalb, 53, said. First he had to inform patients who had been waiting for surgery that he couldn’t operate.Then he tried to find other surgeons to take over his patients’ care. Kalb had 10 days to get everything in order.
“When you are in the military, you have no relief from your obligations to continue to pay your lease for your office, your equipment, and you have to continue to maintain staff to complete the transfer of care, provide medical records and take care of the patients’ business,” he said.
So far, Kalb estimates, he has lost more than $500,000 and is digging himself deeper into debt every day.
Because he will be gone for longer than three months, he will have to reapply for reinstatement to the hospitals where he performed surgeries. It will take two to four months before he can receive credentials to practice again, while he continues to pay $70,000 a year for malpractice insurance.
The experience has forced him to make a major decision about his future — and it doesn’t include the military. “When I get relieved of my activation status, I’m going to return to private practice and pick up and rebuild, because I have the loans to pay back and can’t afford to pay those back if I stay in the military,” he said. Deployments in the past few years have been longer than in previous eras because of the war on terrorism and the Iraq war. Troops are stretched thin, and reservists have been asked to stay on duty for longer periods of time. Others have been called out of retirement.
“There is a lack of predictability. You get mobilized, but how long are you going for? [It affects] more than just reservists. It’s the family, spouse and employer,” said Lt. Col. Louis Leto, director of public affairs at the Reserve Officers Association. “The Guard and reserve are used much differently now. They are really part of the total force now.”
Many small-business owners who are also reservists have not thought to put plans in place in case they are called to duty. Although there is scant support for business owners planning to keep their businesses going when they are deployed, there is a loan program designed to help them recover from costs incurred. Run through the Small Business Administration, the loan program was launched during the Kosovo conflict. It provides loans with a fixed interest rate of 4 percent and allows borrowing up to $1.5 million.
Adams credits the loan with saving his business when it seemed that everything was falling apart. While in Iraq, Adams received an emergency call from home: He was told his wife, Becky, had suffered a mild heart attack. It turned out to be “nothing but stress,” Adams said, from trying to keep the businesses running while working her own full-time job as a secretary.
“It just kind of fell in my lap,” Becky Adams said of her new role running the businesses. “He always handled the money. I didn’t know how he did all that.”
Then in October 2003, while he was in Iraq, Adams was found to have cancer. He was sent home for treatment and called the Small Business Administration for help. He received a loan for $350,000 that he said saved his second business.
“We ain’t on our feet 100 percent, but we can make all our bills,” he said. His revenue for 2004 was a little over $1 million again.
Although there are no specific numbers available, the SBA estimates about 6 or 7 percent of National Guard members are self-employed or are small-business owners.
But the loan program is not enough, the SBA acknowledges. “While it’s a wonderful tool, it’s not going to fit all the circumstances these people face,” said William Elmore, administrator for the SBA’s Office of Veterans Business Development. “Somewhere down the road we may have even additional or better tools.”
Richard Parsons still has a lien on his house from an SBA loan he received when he was called to duty after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Parsons, 42, owns the Churchville Veterinary Hospital in Churchville, N.Y., near Rochester.
More prepared than some, he had advertised for a replacement for when he was called up but had come up only with other veterinarians who could help occasionally. He said he already had “a ton” of debt from starting the clinic in 1997. His wife, the office manager, tried to keep the clinic running while he was away, but it was hard to keep clients who never knew if they would have a veterinarian available, he said.
His wife left her job with a pharmaceutical company to run his practice when he was called up. Parsons received a $72,000 loan to cover operating expenses while he was in Afghanistan, including the costs of veterinarians who filled in at the clinic until he returned.
Currently, the best advice for reservists who own small businesses is simply to prepare, said Ken Yancey, chief executive of the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a group that counsels small businesses. SCORE is trying to start an online counseling program for such reservists. “We can do our best work if we had our opportunity to spend time with them before deployment. But they are called up, go quickly and often haven’t made plans,” he said.