Cover Package: Benefits Families First

Adoption benefits can generate employee good will at low cost.

By Dori Meinert Sep 1, 2013
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Gentry Jones and his wife had been struggling for 10 years to have children when a family friend notified them of a baby who needed a family. They jumped at the chance to adopt even though they had spent their savings on fertility treatments.

"We had no money in the bank, honestly. We decided we would get a loan if we had to," recalls Jones, safety manager for Robins & Morton, a construction and engineering company based in Birmingham, Ala.

That’s when the company’s HR director reminded him that Robins & Morton offers up to $10,000 to employees to cover the costs of an adoption.

With that financial assistance, the couple adopted son Cruz, now 2, in November 2010 without going into debt. Last year, the Joneses expanded their family when they adopted Noah soon after he was born, again with financial help from the company.

"Our boys are nothing short of true miracles," says an emotional Jones, adding that he is grateful to Robins & Morton. "They’ve been so good to us," he says of his employer. "There is no greater way to cultivate employee loyalty than to prove, in word and deed, our families matter."

This year, Robins & Morton is ranked the most adoption-friendly workplace in the architectural, engineering and construction industry and is No. 20 overall on the Best Adoption-Friendly Workplaces list compiled by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

It is among a growing number of employers offering adoption benefits to employees. In 2004, just 39 percent of companies surveyed offered financial adoption benefits, compared with 51 percent that offer such benefits this year, according to Aon Hewitt’s annual survey of 1,200 major U.S. employers.

In addition, the number of companies on Working Mother magazine’s annual top 100 family-friendly companies list that provide paid leave for adoptive parents has increased significantly. The percentage has grown from 46 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2012, according to a May 2013 analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Employee Benefits Survey of about 500 HR professionals, including many from smaller companies, showed that 11 percent of companies offer financial assistance for adoptions and 16 percent offer paid adoption leave.

The Dave Thomas Foundation, created by the late founder of Wendy’s restaurants, who himself was adopted, has a database of about 2,000 companies that have shared their adoption assistance policies. The number of companies has been growing by about 10 percent a year—even during the recent recession, says Rita Soronen, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer.

"For us, that was remarkable," she says. "A lot of businesses were cutting, and benefits were one of those areas, but we continued to see that number bumped up."

She believes the growth would occur even more rapidly if more companies were aware of how adoption benefits can help create good will among all employees—not just those who are interested in adoption—for a relatively low cost.

Low Cost, High Impact

Adoption benefits aren’t as expensive as employers might think, says Aimee Comer, HR director at Robins & Morton, which has 1,085 employees based in six offices in the Southeast.

"It costs almost half of what it costs for an employee to have a child through a standard pregnancy," Comer says. "We’re self-insured. We just see it as helping people meet their goal of having a family, and that’s more important than the added cost to the company."

Robins & Morton began offering adoption benefits in 2009, after Comer noticed an inconsistency in health care benefits. The company had decided in 2007 to cover employees’ fertility treatments "because it’s really important for employees to have the opportunity to make their families." (The Joneses weren’t eligible because the only fertility doctor in their small town was out of network.)

Comer recognized that pregnancy "isn’t the only way you can have a family." The chief executive officer was immediately supportive of adding adoption benefits to Robins & Morton’s offerings, she says. She then met with the company’s accountants to make sure the proposed financial assistance met Internal Revenue Service requirements, so that families wouldn’t be taxed on the benefits.

The company also offers eight weeks of paid adoption leave after an adoption and time off as needed before an adoption for home-study appointments and other requirements.

Since 2009, four families have used the adoption benefits, including the Joneses and one other family that have used the benefit more than once. The participation rate works out to about half of 1 percent of all employees, similar to the national utilization figures collected by the Dave Thomas Foundation.

Even if business leaders initially balk at the idea of adding adoption benefits, Comer says, they are worth fighting for.

"I don’t think there is any greater gift you can give an employee than providing assistance in having a child," Comer says.

Easy to Provide

This year, the 522 employers that completed an online survey as their application for the Dave Thomas Foundation’s top 100 Best Adoption-Friendly Workplaces honor offered an average of $7,000 per adoption and four weeks of paid leave. The financial reimbursement ranges from $500 to $25,300, and the paid leave ranges from one week to 18 weeks. Unpaid leave for adoption, beyond the 12 weeks provided under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, ranges from one week to three years.

According to the survey, 40 percent of the employers offer the adoption benefits immediately after hiring, 20 percent provide them within the first year on the job, and the remaining 40 percent offer them after employees’ one-year anniversary. Sixty-four percent offer the benefit to both full-time and part-time employees.

RBS Citizens Financial Group Inc., which ranks third on the list, is among the most financially generous companies, offering up to $23,180 per adoption. It also provides one week of paid adoption leave. The policy has been in place for more than seven years and applies to all 20,000 of the company’s employees in 12 states, explains Sal DiLiberti, head of benefits for the U.S.

In addition to reflecting the company’s credo, which spells out its commitment to its customers, colleagues and community, the policy helps set RBS apart in a competitive financial services industry, says HR Director Susan LaMonica.

Since 2010, about 85 employees have taken advantage of the program, totaling about $1 million in assistance. Several employees have adopted multiple children.

"It’s actually a relatively easy policy and program to put in place and to administer," LaMonica says. "You get a lot of good will for a rather minimal cost."

Employees who don’t adopt probably know someone who has. "Even if people don’t take advantage of it, they like that their employer provides this type of thing because it signals what type of employer you are," she says.

And it’s not just large companies that offer adoption benefits. South Mountain Co., with only 28 employees, offers up to $10,000 in financial reimbursement and up to four weeks of paid leave to employees who adopt, according to the Dave Thomas Foundation.

What to Cover

In drafting an adoption assistance policy, HR professionals must decide what to cover and when to provide reimbursement. Several HR professionals say they used the model policy provided by the Dave Thomas Foundation as a starting point. That policy recommends reimbursing for:

  • Application fees.
  • Home-study fees.
  • Agency and placement fees.
  • Legal fees and court costs.
  • Immigration, immunization and translation fees.
  • Transportation, meals and lodging.
  • Parent, child and family adoption counseling.

In addition to those costs, RBS Citizens Financial Group reimburses employees for medical expenses of the birth mother, medical expenses of the child before adoption and temporary foster care costs.

The Wendy’s Co. fast-food chain, which tops the Dave Thomas Foundation list, doesn’t cover international travel. But it provides up to $25,300 in financial assistance to employees adopting children with special needs as defined by state agencies, double the amount for other adoptions.

Many companies choose to exclude adoptions of stepchildren because such adoptions are so common and the children usually are still living with a biological parent. But WellStar Health System, based in Marietta, Ga., is among those that include them.

"Making families whole is important, and since the cost is relatively small, it is easy to be generous when it comes to stepchildren," says Karen Mathews, director of worklife services at WellStar, which has 13,000 employees in seven locations.

The financial assistance allowed Blake Stepp, a patient financial services representative at WellStar, to adopt his wife’s son from an earlier relationship.

"My wife and I began dating when Hayden, our oldest son, was 3 months old," Stepp says.

They soon married, but it was eight years before they could complete Hayden’s adoption because of financial and other complications. The company reimbursed the couple $1,500 of the total $2,300 in adoption expenses. The adoption was finalized in April 2011. Hayden, now 10, has four younger siblings, ages 1 to 8.

"Our family seems right now," Stepp says. "We always had that little detail hanging over our heads. Now that stress is gone."

WellStar has gradually increased its financial assistance for all adoptions from $2,500 in 2008 to the current $10,000 per adoption as part of its strategy to be an employer of choice. It provides three weeks of paid adoption leave. The company, which received the Gallup Great Workplace Award this year and last, has seen its engagement scores move from the 16th percentile nationally in 2007 to the 97th percentile nationally this year. Five years ago, the company had trouble attracting talent, but this past year it has received 200,000 applications for 3,000 jobs, says David Anderson, executive vice president for HR.

In developing a policy, HR professionals also must decide when reimbursement will take place—when a child is placed with the employee or after the adoption is finalized. Because the legal process to finalize an adoption can be lengthy, the Dave Thomas Foundation encourages companies to reimburse employees during the process, regardless of the outcome.

Make It Known

Of course, neither employers nor employees will reap the rewards unless workers know that the adoption benefits are available.

WellStar uses multiple communication tactics. All employees receive a monthly mailing about their "pay and perks," allowing the company to remind workers throughout the year of specific benefits and policies, including those involving adoption. "Not everybody, even in today’s climate, has an e-mail address," Anderson says. "The added benefit is that a spouse or other family member gets to see it."

WellStar also highlights its adoption benefits during employee orientation and management training programs. "The best way is to use little vignettes and examples of employees who have taken advantage of the benefits," Anderson says.

"It helps to compare yourself with your competitors" and to show employees how unique the company’s benefits are so they want to stay, he says.

The Dave Thomas Foundation offers a sample communication policy for employers as well as an explanation of tax rules. While there is no special tax incentive for employers, qualified adoption expenses that they cover are deductible.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act increased both the federal adoption tax credit for adoptive parents and the exclusion for assistance to $12,970 for 2013 adoptions with adjustments for inflation.

Flexibility Is Key

HR professionals and managers should understand that an employee who is adopting may need flexibility in his or her work schedule.

A pregnant employee usually can tell an employer her due date, and both can plan for her time away. "The difference with adoption is that you don’t know when it’s going to happen," says Don Montuori, vice president of publishing for MarketResearch.com in Rockville, Md.

Montuori and his partner had to make two trips to Vietnam, 40 days apart, to adopt son Seth in 2001. The process was unexpectedly delayed during the second trip, leaving Montuori unable to give his employer a firm return date. "We stayed there 11 days, but we could have been there for weeks. We got lucky," he says.

Although he had several weeks to arrange the trip to Vietnam, he was able to give his employer only one week’s notice when he traveled to Guatemala in 2005 to finalize the adoption of a second son, Adam, or "A.J.," now 10. But unlike the extended trip to Vietnam, "I was only there four days. All the administrative work was done ahead of time," he recalls.

Without employer flexibility, an otherwise generous policy can backfire by engendering ill will.

One adoptive parent in a senior-level position at an East Coast consulting company says the treatment she received after she returned from Asia with her newly adopted daughter "shook my loyalty to an organization I love."

The 4-year-old needed extensive medical treatment for parasites, malnutrition and a heart defect. She also needed speech and sensory therapy. The executive took the 12 weeks of paid parental leave her employer offered but not another four weeks of vacation time she had coming.

After she returned to work, she says, she was treated differently. Before the adoption, she worked 50 to 55 hours a week. "When I came back, I scaled back to 40 hours a week because I really felt it was the stability I needed for my home life," she says. "I was told in very short order that I would need to put in 50 and, eventually, 60 hours a week. The HR director spelled that out."

Her commitment to her job was questioned. As a senior executive who had proved herself over and over again, she was disappointed. "I felt I had earned the right to a little flexibility," she says.

It took about two years before she was back on track in her career with the company, where she remains today.

Offering adoption benefits is more than just a nice thing to do; it’s equitable, says Noelle Gumm, vice president of total rewards at The Wendy’s Co. and the mother of two adopted children, ages 4 and 6.

"In today’s world, it would be considered unconscionable for a company not to offer some form of financial or leave assistance to employees who give birth," Gumm says. "I am frequently disappointed when I hear of situations where an employer treats adoptions like a lesser means of building a family.

"At a basic level, adoptive parents merely go through a different form of ‘labor and delivery’ to grow their family," she adds. "I believe a successful adoption assistance policy begins with recognizing that families are formed in different ways."

Many employers find other ways to support adoptive families. Some provide adoption resources through their employee assistance programs. Employees at The Wendy’s Co. conduct fundraisers for foster care adoption, which is the Dave Thomas Foundation’s main focus.

When Sarah Cantor and her husband adopted three siblings, her employer sponsored an organizationwide shower. Cantor is director of archives for the Holy Names Heritage Center in Lake Oswego, Ore.

At Robins & Morton, Jones and program manager Nick Dill, who with his wife adopted two children, ages 2 and 4, have become informal advisors for other employees seeking to adopt. When Dill and his wife shared with friends how his employer has helped them build a family, the friends brought the idea to their employers, which now offer adoption benefits as well.

"In my mind, it’s just the right thing to do," Dill says.

Dori Meinert is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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