Unionized air reservists worry about looming full-time uniform rule

Wednesday September 19th, 2007
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EGLIN AFB — At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mark Kolb stopped being a civil service worker and became an airman in order to fly that night as an MC-130P flight engineer.

That was no problem for Kolb, a 5th Special Operations Squadron flight engineer, because he wears those two hats as an air reserve technician.

What Kolb and many other enlisted air reserve technicians at Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt and Duke fields worry about is a decision by the Air Force Reserve Command that would force them to wear uniforms when they’re working as civilians.

The policy has been implemented for officers and supervisors, but suspended for bargaining unit members such as Kolb until reserve command and unions come to terms.

Kolb, who belongs to American Federation of Government Employees Local 1897, is proud to wear the uniform when he’s performing his duties as an Air Force senior master sergeant. When he’s a civilian, he wants civil service rules to apply.

“Even when I’m in my civilian clothes … and I see this young first lieutenant at the front desk I say, ‘yes, sir, no sir,’ ” said the Combat Shadow crewman. “For me, it’s not so much the money or wearing the uniform, but let me wear my civilian rank (name tag when it’s appropriate).”

A major objection by technicians is that the reserve command wants them accountable as active-duty airmen without equalizing salaries and benefits accordingly.

“Overall, we’re against (the uniform policy),” said Local 1897 president Pete Smith. “It’s a contradictory policy between civilian status and military status.”

Smith said the implications of the rule change are blurry, so it could amount to a significant change in working conditions for air reserve technicians. Local 1897 has 184 members who would be affected by the uniform requirement. A total of 277 air reserve technicians work at the local air bases.

The 5th SOS is based at Eglin, but its parent is Duke’s 919th Special Operations Wing.

Wing commander Col. Steve Chapman said in a statement that the only part of an enlisted air reserve technician’s job that would change is the person’s appearance. He added that union members are strongly encouraged to wear uniforms but haven’t been ordered to do so.

“Now more than ever, Air Force reservists are being utilized in the Global War on Terrorism,” stated Chapman. “The appearance of the members of the Air Force Reserve is a crucial aspect to the Total Force Integration concept. We work alongside the active-duty force.”

James Miller, a reserve command spokesman, said the technicians would continue to work under civilian rules when applicable, but military etiquette such as saluting superiors and appropriate fraternization would now be part of their duty. He added that air reserve technicians in civilian mode would not be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Miller said it would take a crystal ball to determine if the uniform policy would result in the technicians leaving the manpower-strapped Air Force, but the rule has jostled some people.

“It obviously is something new, and anytime there’s something new it tends to affect morale,” said Miller. “I think, in general, the command … is hoping (the rule) would be accepted.”

Daily News Staff Writer Mladen Rudman can be reached at 863-1111, Ext. 1443.

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