Trump decision could end Utah National Guard’s coronavirus work — before benefits kick in

(Photo courtesy Utah National Guard) Capt. Aaron Bybee, commander of the 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion’s Alpha Company, is working from home to help the Utah Department of Health conduct contract tracing of people who may have been infected by the coronavirus.

About 160 Utah National Guard soldiers and airmen have spent months helping state officials with their coronavirus response.

They’ve been contact tracers. They’ve gone into long-term care facilities and trained workers on how to use protective equipment and hygiene practices. They’ve worked in makeshift warehouses stacking millions of masks, gloves and other medical gear.

But that work could all end in a few weeks, after the Trump administration ordered that all National Guard deployments for pandemic response end June 24.

The date is one day shy of many National Guard members becoming eligible for federal benefits. A recent Politico report detailed a March 12 interagency call in which a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency official acknowledged that thousands of members who deployed in late March will have only 89 days of duty credit — one day short of the 90 days needed to qualify for some early retirement and education benefits.

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In Utah, it’s not clear yet what that deadline will mean for National Guard members. Utah National Guard Col. Steve Fairbourn said that it’s possible Gov. Gary Herbert could ask for an extension to keep the members working if Utah still needs the help by the end of June.

“Utah’s more than 7,500 soldiers and airmen, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as proud members of Utah’s emergency-response enterprise, remain ready to support our state and nation in its time of need,” Fairbourn said in a statement.

Herbert hasn’t asked for that extension as of Friday.

Retired Utah Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, who heads the coronavirus response at the Utah Department of Health, said that if the president doesn’t extend the deployment, then Utah would have to decide whether it wants to pay for the soldiers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers organize supplies at the Receiving, Staging and Shipping Center at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 8, 2020. The center serves as a central location for personal protective equipment received by the State of Utah and sent to hospitals, local health departments and emergency managers.

“We’d have to look at it on the unified command,” Burton said, “and decide if the Guard was a good economical option or if contracting with, say, IHC [Intermountain Healthcare] would be better.”

Other elected state leaders, like in Colorado, have urged the president to keep paying the National Guard members for coronavirus-related work through year’s end, fearing that ceasing that funding could hinder their ability to respond and could contribute to a second wave of infections.

Trump’s original order was set to expire at the end of May, according to Politico, a Washington, D.C.-based publication. But while other states asked for extensions through the summer and into fall, the White House issued a 24-day extension instead that ends deployments midweek.

“It seemed kind of weird to me,” retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association, the advocacy group for Guard members told Politico. “It’s a Wednesday. And it also coincides with 89 days of deployment for any soldiers who went on federal status at the beginning. I was getting all kind of calls about it and I said, ‘It’s probably just a coincidence.’ But in the back of my mind, I know better. They’re screwing the National Guard members out of the status they should have.”

Guard members typically must serve for 20 years to qualify for a pension when they reach age 60. But for every 90 days spent working in a federal emergency, members can move up that retirement by three months. That 90 days of service also qualifies members for 40% off tuition at public colleges and universities, according to Politico.

It’s estimated that more than 40,000 members across the country are helping with the pandemic response.

The National Council of State Legislatures estimates that the cost of the deployments is as much as $9 million per month for every 1,000 troops.