Companies Offer Relief Funds for Staff Challenged by Calamities

By Susan Ladika

Aug. 15, 2011

Shannon Smith had lived in Tushka, Oklahoma, only a few months when her daughter urged her to look at an ominous cloud bearing down on their new home. “It was huge. It was spinning,” she says. “That was all I needed and I left.”

The pair jumped into Smith’s car and raced to safety about five miles away at Atoka County Medical Center, where Smith works as the CEO’s secretary.

The April tornado slammed into this rural patch of Oklahoma, killing two and destroying dozens of homes, including Smith’s. Only three walls remain standing in the three-bedroom brick home Smith shared with her husband and two teenage daughters. The family is staying in a friend’s pool house until their home is rebuilt.

While Smith and her family are a long way from recovering from the disaster, the $675 grant they received in assistance from her employer and from the VHA Foundation, a national network to which the medical center belongs, makes her “feel very blessed. I was not expecting it. I’m very, very touched.”

With the donation, Smith has seen firsthand the benefit of emergency assistance funds, which some employers establish to aid workers in times of need. It might be a natural disaster, a medical emergency or an unexpected death in the family that leaves employees in dire straits.

VHA Inc. of Irving, Texas, a national network of not-for-profit health care organizations, established the VHA Foundation to provide grants to employees of the network’s medical facilities, as well as the VHA’s own staff, when they are victims of a federally declared emergency. Colleen Risk, a VHA executive vice president, says it’s especially important to support caregivers at hospitals and physicians’ offices because “if something bad happens in the community, they have to be at work.”

Other companies, including Gap Inc., Lowe’s Cos. and Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, also offer grants to needy employees. CCA, which operates dozens of correctional facilities, started the not-for-profit relief fund, CCAssist, in 2006, after years of informal fundraising for employees facing emergencies. The Nashville, Tennessee-based company has given out more than $1.4 million thus far, helping about 75 employees a month. “We believe it goes a long way in building a culture of community” among CCA employees, says Louise Grant, vice president of communications and a founding member of the CCAssist board. “To attract the best employees and retain those employees, you must make them feel valued.”

That’s exactly how CCA paralegal Erika Cotton feels after flooding swamped her Antioch, Tennessee, home last spring. She was spending a leisurely Saturday with her family when days of rain finally brought water streaming through her home. “We had seven minutes to go into survival mode,” Cotton says. The family changed from pajamas to street clothes, lugged their computer and television upstairs, and moved Cotton’s disabled mother out of the house.

The Cottons couldn’t escape the immediate area because of the floodwaters, so they checked into a nearby hotel until the family could move in with Erika’s father and stepmother for four months.

When Cotton returned to work, she received about $3,000 from CCAssist, and individuals dropped checks and gift cards at her desk. “The outpouring of love and support was overwhelming,” she says.

Many organizations follow the model CCA has adopted, with employees signing up for payroll deductions to contribute to the fund and the company kicking in cash. More than 40 percent of employees contribute to CCA’s fund each month, Grant says.

At the Cox Connects Foundation, which serves Cox Communications employees in Oklahoma, the names of recipients of assistance funds are kept confidential unless the person decides to share his or her story, says Tiffani Bruton, Cox Eastern Oklahoma’s director of public affairs. Having such a fund “fits the culture of the company,” she says. “Our employees feel very strongly about taking care of one another.”

In 2010, more than three-quarters of the company’s 2,000 employees made a donation, and more than 100 donated at least $1,000. Bruton says it’s often the front-line employees, like customer-service representatives and technicians, who make the largest donations. “They’re exposed to homes where you see hardships,” she says, “so they’re sensitive to needs.”

Workforce Management, June 2011, p. 10Subscribe Now!

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida.

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