Vol. 45, No. 12
Gain employees' goodwill at a low cost by adding adoption benefits, such as time off & reimbursement for certain expenses.
Congratulations—you have a new child. Those are words of joy for any parent but especially for those who have been waiting to find a baby to adopt. That’s how Teressa Johnson and her husband, James, felt when they adopted their daughter, Taylor. For Teressa, what made the news particularly special was the fact that her employer supported her efforts.
"For me, working at this company meant that I have a family. I always wanted to have the title ‘Mommy,’ and Wendy’s gave me the opportunity," explains Johnson, an administrative secretary in the Dublin, Ohio, office of Wendy’s International, the restaurant chain. Wendy’s is among the growing number of companies offering employees adoption benefits that include cash and time off.
In 1990, only 12 percent of the companies surveyed offered adoption benefits, according to a study by management consulting firm Hewitt Associates of Lincolnshire, Ill. By 1999, that percentage had climbed to 31 percent of employers, with an average monetary reimbursement of $3,100.
For employers, it’s a "really high-visibility benefit," says Jon Van Cleve, a Hewitt work/life consultant. "Other employees feel really good about having their company offer it, even if they don’t take advantage of it themselves. In addition, it is pretty low-cost and low-risk because not everyone is taking advantage of it. So, it is not a huge hit to the budget."
The easiest way to decide who is eligible for this benefit is to offer it to the same employees who are eligible for maternity or paternity benefits—usually full-time employees who participate in the company’s health insurance plan, advises the National Adoption Center, a nonprofit Philadelphia-based group that promotes adoption.
The most common benefit is cash reimbursement to help cover the expenses of adoption. According to the National Adoption Center, the cost of adopting a healthy infant in the United States through a private agency can range from $10,000 to $30,000. Foreign adoptions easily can cost $15,000 to $35,000, excluding travel or living expenses while in the foreign country.
Employers’ benefits can range from a high of $10,000 down to $1,000, depending on the company, with the most common amount being around $5,000, says Van Cleve. Hewitt, which has offered adoption benefits since 1989, gives employees a maximum of $5,000 per successful adoption or a yearly maximum of $10,000.
According to the National Adoption Center, most employers recognize the following types of adoption-related expenses as eligible for reimbursement: adoption agency and placement fees, legal fees and court costs, the birth mother’s medical expenses, the child’s medical expenses if not covered by insurance, costs of temporary foster care for the child, immigration and translation fees, immunizations and transportation and lodging associated with the adoption.
Some companies also offer access to a resource and referral vendor, where employees can get referrals to agencies that will research adoptions for them and help them with the process.
Wendy’s provides its 6,000 eligible employees with referral and resource information and reimburses up to $4,000 of expenses per adoption, or up to $6,000 for the adoption of a child with special needs. Covered expenses include only those incurred in North America. "We do not fund travel expenses for someone who is adopting a child overseas," notes Kathy McGinnis, senior vice president of HR and training. "Our focus is to try and get kids from the United States and Canada adopted."
The restaurant chain is particularly involved in adoption issues because its founder, Dave Thomas, was adopted as a child. In 1990, Thomas was co-chair for a White House initiative on adoption. His involvement prompted Wendy’s to consider offering adoption benefits. "At that time, there were very few companies that had adoption benefits that we could even look at," says McGinnis.
Cambell’s Soup Co. in Camden, N.J., with 13,000 employees, has offered adoption benefits since 1984. The company reimburses employees up to $3,000 per adoption and also provides them with an extensive resource and referral service through the firm’s employee assistance program.
"They can receive educational information about everything from how to start a search, how to deal with international agencies, how to deal with private and public agencies, to how to get ready for the addition of an adoptive child and how to integrate that child into your family," says Kathleen Schultz, manager of health, wellness and work/life.
Large employers aren’t the only ones offering adoption benefits. Calvin College, a Christian college in Grand Rapids, Mich., reimburses its 750 full-time employees up to $4,650 for one child or $6,975 for two children adopted at the same time. The precise numbers come from the college’s estimates of average costs of childbirth plus an increase the college added to its benefit recently.
"The idea for adding this benefit at Calvin came through the faculty and staff because some of them had gone through the process and wondered why Calvin, as a pro-life institute, wasn’t doing that," says Connie Bellows, the college’s HR director. "It was a way for the institute to put its money where its mouth was. What we wanted was some type of benefit comparable to the benefits employees received when they gave birth."
Tom’s of Maine Inc., a maker of natural personal care products in Kennebunk, Maine, with only 130 employees, also offers adoption benefits. "It really comes down to respecting your employees, and when you offer them that respect, the payback is tremendous in terms of their satisfaction and the quality of their work," says Kathleen Taggersell, team leader of communications and public relations.
Offering Time Off
Some employers provide paid time off for employees who adopt. For example, Campbell’s gives employees up to five days of paid personal leave for adoptions.
Paid time off can be helpful because even though employees may be eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) after adopting a child, most cannot afford to take unpaid leave after having spent thousands of dollars on the adoption.
At Wendy’s, employees may take up to six weeks of paid leave following an adoption. "We also make this benefit available to any eligible employee, whether male or female. And, if both employees [in an adopting couple] work for us, they can split the time."
Tom’s of Maine provides paid time off not only following the adoption but also during the adoption process. Tom’s gives employees five paid days off during adoptions as well as four weeks off after the adoption. "When we first started in 1988 offering time off for the process, we gave two days," says Taggersell, "but we have since raised that to five because the actual process of adoption entails some time, and we want to make sure our employees have the time they need."
A domestic adoption may require parents to take time off to see attorneys, visit adoption agencies or fill out paperwork. International adoptions are even more time-consuming.
Lynne Chappel, corporate licensing director for Campbell’s, and her husband were amazed at the amount of paperwork required by state and federal law for the international adoption of their daughter Alexis. "You definitely need a boss who can be understanding that you have to have some time off to complete all the paperwork," Chappel says. "We had to go have our fingerprints taken by the FBI, and we had to go to our local police station as well for our reference card. Then there is all the other paperwork. It took us two months to complete it all."
When to Reimburse, What to Cover
Although these benefits are relatively easy to add to your benefits package, there are a few points to consider, such as timing of the reimbursement. Do you pay as soon as the employee signs a contract with an adoption agency, or do you wait until there has been a successful adoption?
Offering the money once the contract has been signed helps the adoptive parents cover the most costly period of the adoption, but there is a chance that the adoption could fall through. Some employers, such as Wendy’s, wait until the adoption has been completed, while Campbell’s pays as soon as the employee can offer documentation for the fees.
"They would not have to pay it back if the adoption were to fall through," adds Campbell’s Schultz. She points out that even if the original adoption does not come to fruition, the employee usually is still registered with the agency and will have a chance at another adoption for which the employee can use the money.
Some companies, such as Wendy’s, offer more money for children with special needs in an effort to help those children get adopted. If your company decides to provide this added incentive, McGinnis suggests that your definition for "special needs" come from the community where the child is being adopted.
Children with special needs might be defined as children with disabilities, children who are minorities or children older than a certain age, such as 2 or 3. "Definitions can differ state by state or even county by county," McGinnis points out. "We use the local definition. You need to think about this before you put your policy in place. Otherwise, you could create some relationship problems with people who want to know why certain children are considered special and others are not."
One possible type of adoption you may decline to cover is an adoption by a step-parent. "We do not pay in the case of someone who is divorced and is now remarried and wants the children to all have the same name," McGinnis says. "That could become expensive."
Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine. She can be reached at Hatchwood@aol.com.