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The Needs of the Few

Organizations are taking major steps to help employees with special-needs kids, and finding that the rewards far outweigh the costs.

Friday, July 1, 2005
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Carol Lozanov-Miccio knows firsthand that employees with special-needs dependents appreciate extra consideration.

Lozanov-Miccio is director of leadership education and development in Pfizer Inc.'s human resource department. Following a transfer, she was commuting 122 miles daily from her home in Stratford, Conn., to Palisades, N.Y.

Pfizer offered a relocation package, but relocating was complicated. Lozanov-Miccio's 10-year-old daughter had severe language impairments necessitating research into appropriate school districts for her daughter. Plus, her family needed to stay in Connecticut.

Eventually her family settled in New Canaan, Conn., a move that was just under the minimum distance necessary to qualify for reimbursement under Pfizer's relocation policy. Pfizer, she says, made an exception to accommodate her circumstances, and her family moved into their new home in September 2004.

It is almost inevitable that human resource professionals will at some point have to help a worker with a special-needs dependent. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data indicate that approximately 13 percent of children and adolescents in the United States have a chronic condition or special health-care need that requires increased health-related services.

Furthermore, according to a survey by the Association of Professional Office Managers, the APOM Foundation and OfficeOurs magazine of almost 200 office managers, human resource directors, business owners, professionals and executives, 64 percent of respondents were aware of at least one person within their company caring for a child or adult with special needs.

Despite these numbers, most firms deal with employees with special-needs dependents on an ad hoc basis. Very few organizations have formalized programs or procedures to handle this employee population.

IBM is one of the few that does have a formalized program. The "Special Care of Children Assistance Plan" covers employees who have a child with a mental and/or physical disability, or a child with a developmental or learning disorder. The plan helps pay expenses for certain treatments and therapy outside the scope of the IBM medical and dental benefit plans up to a lifetime maximum benefit of $50,000 per child.

But, for the most part, when issues arise they are dealt with on a case by case basis. That is the approach taken by The Segal Co., says Ellen Reynolds, senior vice president and chief people officer at the New York-based company. Segal has made sure its employee-assistance program is equipped to deal with the issues such employees may have, she says, but has no other formal programs or procedures. It's also the approach taken by First Horizon National Corp., says Shelley Hodelka, an employee-services relationship manager at the Louisville, Ky.-based company.

HR may not even be aware of just how many employees are in this situation, says Linda Roundtree, president of Roundtree Consulting, a work/life consulting firm based in Renton, Wash. "Many times employees are afraid to discuss their children with special needs," she says. "They worry about the employer thinking they are not dedicated or that their family is expensive to insure."

More Complex

As Lozanov-Miccio's story shows, relocation, in particular, is an area where HR has to be sensitive. "When a special-needs child is involved, relocation is a bit more complex," says Roundtree. Parents need to take into account access to preferred doctors and whether state services are available; the choice of school system becomes more complicated as well.

Often, parents of children with special needs will not relocate unless they know adequate services for their child exist, says Fay Lenz, vice president of Work/Life Innovations in Wethersfield, Conn., a work/life EAP company whose clients include United Technologies and McDonald's Corp.

Other times employees may actually specifically request relocation. PricewaterhouseCoopers relocated a manager from Texas to the East Coast. After the relocation, his wife became pregnant and discovered that child would have special needs. The manager wanted to remain on the partnership track but move back to Texas to be near family for support, says Lisa Ong, diversity and work/life leader in the Dallas office of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The firm relocated the manager back, she says, and he is still considered partnership material. "PricewaterhouseCoopers felt it needed to accommodate this manager's request for a work/life accommodation because he was a top performer and probably would have left the firm to find a position closer to his family if we hadn't," says Ong.

But human resources should look beyond top performers to their entire staff, says Jennifer Piliero, a product manager for Ceridian EAP Work/Life Services in Boston. Having to worry about a loved one, she says, whether it is a child, spouse or parent, can affect that employee's productivity on the job. Providing support, however, can earn the firm a lot of good will.

"Employees who feel an organization is supporting them are more committed to the organization," says Piliero. Furthermore, says Piliero, many potential employees are now looking beyond just base salary when comparing job offers and are also looking at what programs and services are being provided.

Accommodating this employee demographic need not be difficult or cost additional money. "Many of the things companies are already doing can be tweaked a little to be really responsive to parents with children with special needs," says Christina Fluet, a project director for MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. For example, if a company already has a contract with a vendor for back-up child care, the employer could speak with the vendor to make sure that back-up child care is available for children with special needs.

MassGeneral currently has a project that is trying to better understand the work/family challenges for families with children with special needs. Working with three companies over the course of a year, Fluet piloted special initiatives to establish support groups for parents at firms in Boston and Cleveland. One of these initiatives set up after-work seminars where supper was served and child care provided.

Just getting to meet co-workers in the same position as themselves was appreciated. "Sometimes employees had worked together for years and never knew they were in the same situation," says Fluet.

Human resource executives can also utilize EAPs or resource-referral services already in place. Lenz says her staff is equipped to handle calls from both employees with special-needs children and HR managers looking for ways to keep employees at work and productive. For example, Lenz relates how her firm once helped a Tennessee worker whose 16-year-old son with special needs who was suspended from school.

The father, who called Work/Life Innovations at the behest of his HR manager, was going to leave to care for his son. In listening to the parent, Lenz's staff realized the school system was violating federal law. Work/Life Innovations put the parent in contact with a local protection and advocacy group. Afterward the parent called and said, "I want you to know you saved my life and my son's life."

Lenz also relates the story of an employee of a client who found out she was carrying a child with Down Syndrome. The EAP was able to put the employee in contact with resources and support groups, "so that by the time she delivered, she had a good idea of what services were available and she had a big support group," says Lenz. An EAP program can also do advance research for relocating employees, so they know in advance which school systems to look at and what support services are available to make the transition as smooth as possible, says Deborah Zimmerman, a consultant with Ceridian's EAP Work/Life Services area, who is a special-needs specialist.

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Getting Support

While HR generally directs workers to utilize the EAP, sometimes it's HR that contacts the EAP, says Zimmerman. Parents of children with special needs can often get very emotional at work, she says. HR may call to ask how they can help the employee.

Employees and employers can also take advantage of free programs like the one offered by MetLife. The program, called METDESK (MetLife Division of Estate Planning for Special Kids), offers financial advice to parents, grandparents and even siblings of children and adults with special needs, says Nadine Vogel, a vice president of MetLife in Jersey City, N.J.

MetDesk provides free workshops and one-on-one counseling to either the employer or employee, she says. It's a stand-alone program that doesn't have to be offered in conjunction with any other MetLife product and doesn't require a minimum number of employees.

Scheduling flexibility is also a primary concern. Often, says Roundtree, parents need time to meet with school staff and therapists. Hodelka's assistant at First Horizon, who has two children with special needs, takes advantage of a special "Prime Time" schedule, which allows employees to work 20 to 32 hours with full benefits. The assistant works four days a week for six hours per day, Hodelka says, and takes Wednesday off to take her children to their standing therapist sessions.

Her assistant also makes use of the Family Medical Leave Act's intermittent time-off provision for other doctor's appointments related to their serious health conditions. However, she says, her assistant plays her part as well in making the flexibility work. She schedules appointments far in advance and makes sure she has coverage when she needs to take the time off, Hodelka says.

Flexibility also sometimes means reassigning an employee, says Reynolds. Some Segal consultants have assignments which require them to spend a lot of time traveling, she explains, but if a special-needs child comes into that consultant's life, they may not be able to travel. Segal then tries to reassign clients for the consultant so they don't have to travel as much, she explains.

Tweaking health insurance is another area where HR can make a big difference, and it's often not very expensive to do, says Roundtree. Last July, PricewaterhouseCoopers made changes to its health-care plan specifically to help employees with children with special needs. The plan now pays for speech, occupational and physical therapy for children with developmental delays up to the age of 5. Under standard industry practice, health-care plans do not cover these services, explains Marjorie Mayerson, the manager/director of national benefits at PricewaterhouseCoopers, based in New York.

The change was requested by employees and partners who had children with developmental delays. The only issue the firm had in changing this rule was getting the insurance company that administers the firm's self-insured plan to administer it correctly because it's not standard, says Mayerson.

In the end, what seems to be most important is having good listening skills. "I'd like to believe that most HR people and managers are sensitive to these issues," says Reynolds.

"We can never promise to do everything an employee asks us to do, but we have a responsibility as human beings to talk through the situation and bring it to a resolution. Even if the employer cannot do what the employee asks, if they are respectful and talk it through, even if it ultimately is not enough, the employee can see they have support. It's a matter of balancing the need of the organization with the needs of the employee."

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