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Opinion: Don’t assume staff understands employer benefits

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Editor’s note: This is the first of regular columns by Francine Pratt of Prosper Springfield. She’ll address poverty, prosperity and how to build a bridge in
between.

I can remember two years ago when I returned to working for the state while living in California to care for my father. Day one on the job as a manager, I was given enough materials related to benefits that would fill a 2-inch binder. Many of the handouts had references to online documents to further explain the benefits. We only had 30 days to select the benefits or we would have to wait until the next year’s open enrollment period to reapply. The benefits included the usual medical, dental and vision. However, there was a host of other benefits that included legal services, short-term and long-term disability insurance, retirement investment options, tuition reimbursement and flexible schedules.

Through the online portal, I could find additional benefits through the employee assistance program, the Family Medical Leave Act, paid holidays, travel reimbursements and details of the five different medical plans. As a highly trained professional, I was overwhelmed with relocating, caring for my father, finding a place to stay and learning a new job. I managed, at least, to meet the deadline for the health benefits.

But what about new employees? Do we ever check with them before the deadlines for benefits, or do we just expect them to know what to do because they are working employees? Do we hold voluntary informational sessions before the mandatory open enrollment meetings, so they are not singled out for asking that perceived stupid question?

When we look at increasing job skills for existing employees, do we leave it up to them to come to the leaders to find out how to increase their skills in order to earn higher wages? It seems it’d be better to recognize their potential and have meetings to share with employees how they can increase their job skills through benefits – even if that information already was shared when they were first hired.

I have spoken to a couple dozen people in Springfield who earn minimum wage and asked if their employer provided tuition reimbursement. First, many did not understand the term. Those who did indicated they’d love to take some classes for better pay, but they did not have the upfront money for later reimbursement. Second, many of them stated they would not go to their human resources department because they did not want the employer to think they may be looking for another job if they asked questions about benefits. I even had one person tell me he left a higher paying job because he was missing too many holidays with his family. He believed this was a topic he couldn’t discuss with his employer for fear of losing his job.

With the unemployment rate a hair above 3 percent in Springfield and employers facing challenges finding skilled workers, maybe it is time to grow the workers from within existing businesses. Several local companies are creating internal apprenticeship programs.

Consider safe spaces to have dialogues with existing entry-level employees about benefits available to them to help them increase job skills and even address challenges at home. I’ve made it a practice to ask anyone under my leadership two questions: What part of your job do you enjoy the most, and what do you do in your spare time? These two questions helped me design their job – within reason – so they could enjoy it more.

By the way, it took me almost a year later to review the benefits that I did not take advantage of – but then it was time to return to Springfield. My father is doing well.

Francine Pratt is director of Prosper Springfield, a poverty reduction initiative led by Community Partnership of the Ozarks and United Way of the Ozarks. She can be reached at fpratt@cpozarks.org.

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