Program helps employees in times of need

Chari Jones, who directs ERN as an outreach of the Schenectady Community Action Program is pictured in The Leader-Herald offices. (The Leader-Herald/ Eric Retzlaff)

SCHENECTADY — You’re an employee with a very young child and are worried about paying for food. This weighs on your mind and heart as you try to do your job.

Or you’re an employer who has a good worker, but that employee suddenly becomes a no call-no show, and you don’t know why.

Ideally home problems and work issues won’t intrude on each other, but the reality is often different.

Some businesses in Fulton and Montgomery counties have opted into a service called the Employer Resource Network that assists employees confidentially to resolve problems while improving worker retention, saving the employer both time and money.

Chari Jones, who directs ERN as an outreach of the Schenectady Community Action Program, said employers buy a share of the time of one of two “success coaches” – usually six hours. The coaches listen to employees’ troubles and help them work through them, sometimes referring them to agencies that can deal with specific needs.

“People want to work and earn a living, but life stuff gets in the way,” said Jones.

She said ERN “is brilliant in its simplicity” because it takes the burden of dealing with employee problems off human resources while giving employees one-on-one access to a helping person.

ERN currently is serving eight businesses ranging from 45 to 1,700 employees in its first year of operation, but it can take on more. Its success coaches are double-interviewed for their jobs-first by her and then by the prospective employer. Jones said employers get to answer the question “if you had to hire them independently, would you?” The coaches live in the areas they serve.

Once hired by a business, success coaches are introduced to staff from management to line workers, all of whom can use their services. Initially, 75 percent of employees are referred by HR to a success coach but that eventually flips to 75 percent of employees seeking help themselves, Jones said.

The top three problems facing employees are transportation, child care and financial/legal, but substance abuse, depression or anxiety, and domestic violence can sometimes occur, said Jones, who is herself a licensed mental health counselor.

The ultimate reward for the business is retention of a productive employee since losing an employee and having to hire and train a replacement is costly-an average of $3,500 nationwide, she said.

The success coaches “are encouraged to walk the floor,” getting to know the workers. “How’s your day going today?” is a simple question “that may be a door opener,” Jones said.

“The coaches’ perception skills are very good,” she said. “They can read their audience.”

Sometimes people with problems get stuck “in their own heads” and “might not know how to talk about them,” but the coaches “know how to ask the right questions,” she said.

ERN “has been a really good service,” said Jim Joyce, director of HR for Amsterdam Printing, which has 300 employees.

He said many times employees “may not come to supervisors or HR,” but ERN “gives them someone to talk to and work through some different issues.”

Joyce said his company would prefer employees not to leave its employ but “stay and be productive.”

Fulmont Community Action Agency is a Fulton and Montgomery county counterpart of Schenectady’s SCAP, performing many of the same functions.

Headquartered in Fonda, it has outreach offices throughout the counties and aids people across the age spectrum with such services as preschool, nutrition aid, energy assistance and transportation. As such, it receives referrals from ERN’s coaches for “almost every program” it offers, said Denis Wilson, Fulmont’s director.

ERN “helps stabilize the workplace for employers by helping employees with their problems,” he said.

At the same time, it connects with Fulmont “to fulfill our purpose of serving people,” he added.

“One of the biggest problems I hear out there from business, particularly the larger ones, is the retention rate of their employees,” said Mark Kilmer, president and CEO of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t go a week without hearing this. People tend to migrate from job to job.”

He thinks personal problems, such as power bills, babysitting, sickness and car repairs, are contributing to this. Businesses may spent the first three weeks just training a new hire, he added.

Kilmer said he was “amazed” when he heard about ERN. He said it is so much less costly for a business buy a share of a success coach’s time than hiring a full-time person to do the same job.

ERN programs exist nationwide. ERN units in New York state have helped employers to have a more than 80 percent employee retention rate and a more than 450 percent return on their investment in the program, but the Fulton-Montgomery ERN’s rates have been 92 percent and 650 percent respectively, Jones said.

Jones can be reached for more information at (518) 374-9181 or cjones@scapny.org.

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