Delay to Incentive Pay Boost for Guard and Reserves Draws Rebuke from Lawmakers

Airmen of the Iowa Air National Guard.
Airmen of the Iowa Air National Guard take part in a 9/11 20th anniversary ceremony in Sioux City, Iowa September 11, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Ter Haar)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing the Pentagon over a delay in National Guardsmen and reservists receiving higher incentive pay caused by the department failing to deliver a report to Congress on time.

At issue is a provision in last year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that required the Defense Department to give members of reserve components incentive pay equal to the bonuses given to active-duty service members. The bill required the Pentagon to complete a report before increasing the pay, but the report has yet to be delivered despite being due to Congress on Sept. 30.

"Since reserve component service members who receive incentive pay are already maintaining the same skills as their counterparts in the active component, they deserve to receive the same amount of incentive pay," six House and Senate members from both parties wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday.

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"Failure to provide this will only exacerbate the military's manning crisis as current reserve component service members weigh whether to continue dedicating their time to maintaining their critical military skills despite this pay disparity or focus instead on opportunities in the civilian labor market of which they are already members," they added.

The letter was organized by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a member of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subpanel who is currently running for the Senate.

Asked about the status of the report, a Pentagon spokesperson told the department requested an extension on the deadline, without providing a specific timeline on when it will be completed.

"As it is not uncommon, the department informed Congress of the need for an extension," spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said in an emailed statement. "We will be providing an update within the coming months. That is the extent of information we have available at this time."

It is not uncommon for the Pentagon to miss deadlines imposed by the NDAA, and a congressional staffer told earlier this year in response to a question about a different filing that the department was about eight months behind schedule on most reports.

But the delay on this report means that Guardsmen and reservists have to wait longer to receive pay they've earned, which could in turn exacerbate recruitment and retention issues that have been plaguing the military, the lawmakers argued. The Army National Guard has had a particularly hard time with recruitment and retention this year.

"DoD's delay in providing this report and certification on time prevents the payment of these incentive pays that are crucial for the retention of critical skills," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Austin. "Incentive pays are vital for retaining qualified talent and are less expensive than training new servicemembers to replace those who would otherwise decide to leave."

The issue revolves around 18 categories of incentive pay used to attract recruits or retain service members with specific skills or qualifications. Many of the bonuses, which can add hundreds of dollars a month to a service member's paycheck, require specialized training or involve duties that put a service member at greater risk.

Current Pentagon policy caps the incentive pay for Guardsmen and reservists lower than for active-duty troops, despite the fact that they are required to do the same training or duties as their active-duty counterparts to receive the bonuses.

The report required by the NDAA tasked the Pentagon with laying out an implementation plan for incentive pay parity between the active and reserve components. The department also needs to certify in writing that pay parity will not have a detrimental effect on force structure.

In arguing for pay parity, the lawmakers pointed to a 2019 Rand Corp. study about aviation incentive pay that found "it is more cost-effective for the [U.S. Air Force] to increase [special and incentive] pay and retain pilots than to expand the training pipeline to sustain a given pilot inventory."

"Our reserve component service members are vital members of our total force," the lawmakers wrote in their letter. "As the foreign and domestic operations tempo remains high for reserve component service members, we must provide them with the benefits they have earned."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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