Compassionate Employer Awards 2016

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Two Fox Valley employers exceed expectations reaching out to employees and their families in times of need

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

November 2016

It’s hard to deny – life happens. Usually during work hours. We can hide in our little work sphere all we want, but outside the bubble, look out. Life’s gone haywire, and eventually, it pops.

Compassionate employers understand that. They get that the people they employ are people. People who have illnesses, addictions, medical emergencies, financial crises, divorces, custody battles, sick family members, elderly parents. These employers aren’t doormats and they don’t have bottomless pockets, but they allow a little wiggle room now and then to step outside the confines of the workplace policy.

The 3rd Annual Compassionate Employer Awards presented by Kaukauna-based Community Benefit Tree and New North B2B magazine recognize those employers who provide unparalleled support for an employee in a time of dire need.

This year’s awards go to two Fox Cities companies: one that takes care of people, and the other that takes care of cars. Both were nominated for the award by an employee who took comfort in the compassion of their boss and co-workers in the midst of some of life’s most challenging moments.

St. Paul Elder Services of Kaukauna is recognized in the large-employer category, and Matthews Tire of Appleton won the newly established small-employer category. Both employers have shown themselves to take care of hearts and souls as well as customers.

Rehabilitating the human spirit

Some companies allow employees to take time off to care for their loved ones, but not every company literally takes care of those loved ones.

Corinne Sieker was director of nursing at St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna when her life doubly imploded. She and her able-bodied mom were preparing a benefit for her sister, Laurie, whose significant medical issues and upcoming surgery threatened to take her last cent, when trouble kicked up. A sore on her mom’s foot became so infected it needed emergency treatment. It’d turned gangrenous, and part had to be amputated.

With her mom unable to help with Laurie’s benefit and surgical aftercare, everything fell on Sieker’s shoulders.

St. Paul Services made a cash donation to Laurie’s benefit, but its help didn’t stop there. They accepted Sieker’s mom as a patient after foot surgery, allowing Sieker to be nearby. But it gets better.

Insurance woes

At the same time, Laurie’s surgery was imminent, and shortly before a pre-op visit, Sieker’s family learned insurance wouldn’t cover Laurie’s pre-op therapy. Laurie was panicked, and Sieker had no idea how to help.

“There I am, I’ve got Mom in the home with part of her foot off, not knowing how that’s going to go, and my sister’s things are so complicated I didn’t know what to do,” Sieker said.

On the Sieker homefront, Sieker’s 17-year-old son had gotten into trouble and her 12-year-old son needed her, too. Her husband Steve was working his tail off to make things work out, and their two dogs, two cats and horse needed attention, too.

Pulled in a zillion different directions, Sieker asked her employer if they knew of any help for Laurie. Director of Rehabilitation Services Lisa Nebel offered her services at no charge, since Laurie’s insurer had no contract with St. Paul Services.

With no ramp on Laurie’s house, they worried about how she’d be released home post-surgery. She’d need extensive post-surgical therapy, too, and lots of close care.

Knowing that Sieker was still the only family support either woman had, St. Paul Services offered to take Laurie in as a patient for post-op recovery, too. “They did that pro bono, free of charge, as again, they don’t have a contract with Laurie’s insurance.”

The solution meant Sieker didn’t have to leave work to care for her sister and see her mother. It meant Laurie didn’t have to be far from her own kids and family, and Sieker could be there to advocate for her sister’s special circumstances.

“Even for a week’s stay, that’s a significant amount of dollars out of (St. Paul’s) pocket,” Sieker said.

Since she was director of nursing, it could have been uncomfortable for everyone involved. But St. Paul Services made it painless.

“I was the boss, and … that could make staff feel uncomfortable. They could be thinking, ‘What if I do something wrong, or say something wrong?’” Sieker said. “My staff did wonderful: They developed relationships with my mom and with Laurie, and they let me be me and live in my day.”

Compassion is key

Compassion is a core value of St. Paul Elder Services, said its chief executive.

“That applies not only to the people we serve, but the people who serve us,” said Sondra Norder. “We know we can’t do all we do without our employees, and we treasure them. When they struggle, we want to do what we can to help them through their struggles and get back to where they need to be. It’s just in our culture.”

Sieker is not the only employee St. Paul Services has helped, Norder said. When employees or family members go through hard times, the organization does what it can.

“Often we provide not only monetary assistance, but if there’s something we can do in the way of time-off granted or equipment we can lend out to someone who’s having a health issue, we’ve regularly done that kind of thing,” Norder said.

The company’s Providence Fund is for employee emergencies in help covering food, gas, diapers, rent or other expenses, she said.

The help goes beyond the financial need: “You give each other a ride to work,” if someone has car trouble or can’t afford gas, Sieker said. She helped a coworker from another culture obtain mental health assistance after isolation from her people and traditions led to instability.

“I talked to the bosses, we got her some help … and they saved her job for her, even if she wasn’t eligible for that,” Sieker said.

Team members rallied around to help her find a community of her native people.

“A lot of people came forward and said ‘I can take her to that church or that grocery store,’” Sieker said. “And they didn’t just do it once. They kept doing it week after week.”

For Sieker, the cherry on the sundae came when St. Paul Services arranged to solve one last logistics dilemma for her sister, Laurie.

“She had her ramp ready to go before she was able to go home,” Sieker said.

Giving recovery the green light

Three years ago, Melissa Gerrits’s 5-month-old daughter received head injuries that landed her in the neonatal intensive care unit. During that time and beyond, Gerrits’s employer, Matthews Tire in Appleton, helped grease the wheels for the road to recovery.

“(Matthews) allowed me to take as much time as I needed to make sure my daughter could make it to any appointments and therapies she needed that would help her to recover and heal,” Gerrits said. “They never made me feel like it was too much time off – they always made me feel like Madison was more important than work.”

A survivor of shaken baby syndrome, little Madison spent six weeks at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. After that came months of tests, follow ups, therapy and scans.

“She sometimes had 24- or 48-hour EEGs (electroencephalograms) so I would be down there for a few days at a time,” Gerrits said.

Gerrits took four months off work to get her daughter situated, returning only on a “very, very part-time basis” for a year.

Madison’s ongoing therapy at first took several hours a day, which meant Gerrits couldn’t work a full day. “I’d come into work for a few hours and leave for the day, or maybe come back sometimes, or maybe not, depending on whether there was an appointment after that,” she said. “They (Matthews) never batted an eye.”

Many employers wouldn’t take kindly to this kind of absence. But Matthews never breathed down her neck, she said.

“There was never a question about it, so me being able to do that – to get her to her appointments and to all her therapy sessions – has helped,” Gerrits said.

All the while, Matthews management and coworkers kept in touch with mother and daughter, checking in on Madison’s progress. The company donated money to help defray bills, and coworkers sent cards and helped with a benefit.

“They are definitely one of those companies that want to make sure all of their employees are taken care of,” Gerrits said.

Gerrits is a 10-year employee at Matthews. She’s now store manager of the eastside Appleton location, but at the time of the incident, she worked in sales at the westside Appleton site.

Employees are family

“We are a family business, and with that, we try to treat our employees like part of our extended family,” said Trevor Rezner, president of Matthews Tire, which altogether has seven stores in the Fox Cities, Green Bay, Waupaca and Fond du Lac.

Rezner said his employees are the company’s greatest asset.

“Obviously we need customers to keep our business going, but if we have good, happy, productive employees, that makes for good, happy customers, as well,” he said. “We always try to be sure our employees are happy and try to think of them as extended family, so when they have troubles and things like that, we do whatever we can to help them out.”

Each case is different, he said.

As are employers: “I needed someone who was going to be lenient and understanding, because first and foremost, my daughter came first,” Gerrits said. “They completely understood that.”

Twice a year, Matthews holds an Oil Change for the Better event to raise money for charity. Most recently, they raised $2,700 for Saving Paws animal rescue.

“Any time an employee comes to us with a worthy cause, especially if they’re passionate about it, we try with all our powers to support it,” Rezner said.

Not alone

Gerrits said other employees have run into financial and health issues, even gambling problems, and have been provided support and direction.

“We’ve had a couple people who have had pretty extensive surgeries and have needed time off, for months at a time, sometimes repetitive surgeries, and they’ve been very understanding of the circumstances … and of people needing time off to take care of family matters,” Gerrits said.

Gerrits said she’s been told that at some point, Madison’s development and recovery will plateau.

“She’s never going to be a normal, functioning person,” she said.

Madison has damage to much of her brain’s right hemisphere and part of the left.

“She may have to live at home the rest of her life,” Gerrits said. “I don’t know at this point, but it’s definitely a cognitive delay.”

The damage to Madison’s brain resulted in vision problems, including peripheral vision, and she has problems balancing. She’s able to walk with a walker. The left side of her body is weaker than her right, so she doesn’t have two-hand functioning.

“It’s kind of like a hand and then a helper hand,” Gerrits said. “There’s going to be struggles the rest of her life.”

But they’re in a much better place than they were three years ago, and Gerrits credits her employer with her daughter’s progress.

“When it first happened, when we were in the NICU, they flat out told me – A) they didn’t know whether she was going to make it, and B) if she did, she wasn’t going to be able to walk, talk or anything,” Gerrits said. “For me to be able to have the time off to do all of the things she had to do and now today she is walking and talking – I don’t think we’d be there without that time off.” 

Lee Marie Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.