When you work in benefits and human resources, fielding calls from employees who are struggling with a variety of problems comes with the territory. A few years ago, the HR team at West Coast-based C&K Market, Inc. noticed a marked increase in the number of calls from employees who were in financial trouble because of a one-time event - for example, a medical emergency, or a spouse's job loss.

"Oftentimes it wasn't a whole lot of money. But when you live paycheck to paycheck, if you miss [one], it can put you behind on your rent - and then it's hard to get caught up," says Kate Wilkinson, general counsel and director of human resources. "So we started talking as an HR team about what we could do for people."

C&K Market is a family-owned chain of grocery stores and pharmacies in Oregon and northern California with about 2,400 employees. The company is self-insured and does not have an employee assistance program.

Wilkinson and her team created a program called Helping Hands, which provides small, one-time awards to employees in need of financial help.

"We're a big company with a lot of employees. If everybody just donated a little bit of money - say, a dollar out of every paycheck - and we put it in this fund, if people have their backs up against a wall and $500 is going to make a huge difference in their lives, we could help them," says Wilkinson.

The executive team was supportive and provided $10,000 in seed money to get the program started. The company also matches employee donations up to $50,000 a year. Employee donations are made through payroll deduction.

Since Helping Hands was launched in 2012, the program has given out 37 awards, equaling a total of $27,730.

Employees who request aid from the fund are asked to fill out a short application form and provide relevant documentation. Requests are reviewed by a panel. The maximum amount that can be requested is $2,500, but Wilkinson says many employees don't ask for a specific amount. "They describe what's going on and just say, 'anything you can give me would be greatly appreciated,'" she says.



One-time emergencies

And while there was some concern prior to the program's launch about how the company would police it and whether employees would try to take advantage of it, Wilkinson says the company has not been flooded with requests. "We tie it to one-time emergencies," she says. "It's not at all ongoing support."

For example, the program recently processed a request from an employee who lives in a rural area in northern California and needed surgery to help with some significant vision problems. But because of the health plan she was on, she had a high deductible she had not met for the year. "Basically, she would have ended up blind," says Wilkinson. "And we were able to bridge that gap."

The program is simple to administer, didn't take much to start and is slowly growing through word of mouth. "We have challenges with communication because we're not email-based and we are rural - our stores are far apart - but I think the word is getting out there," says Wilkinson. "It's one of the best things I get to work on because people are so grateful. We have these great employees who work hard and it's a small thing we feel we're doing together to help people."



Other wellness initiatives

Last year, the Portland Business Journal ranked C&K Market as the healthiest employer with 1,500-plus employees in the state of Oregon. The company offers a 10% employee discount on produce and a smoking cessation program in conjunction with the Great American Smokeout in November.

The grocery chain also works with Walker Tracker, a Portland-based company, to sell reduced-rate pedometers to employees, who then track their steps in Web-based challenges. Currently, C&K Market employees are participating in a Stepping to Stadiums challenge, walking virtually to sports stadiums across the country.

"They've been willing to work with us on the pricing, and they've let us add spouses to that program and not charge us for them," says Wilkinson.

The firm has also partnered with one of its vendors, Jennie-O. C&K Market buys turkeys from Jennie-O, which is a sponsor of NBC's "The Biggest Loser." For the past two years, Jennie-O has sponsored C&K Market's internal weight loss challenge and has flown three C&K Market employees - those who achieved the largest percentage of weight loss - to Los Angeles to attend the taping of the finale of the TV program.

"Encouraging your employees to be healthy - that's something anybody can do," says Wilkinson. "We do it with a lot of geographic challenges, maybe some cultural challenges, but we're getting there and we're doing it pretty cheaply."

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