Although the name Dave Thomas likely is most closely associated with the smiling red-haired girl in pigtails who serves as the icon for his chain of Wendy's restaurants and the burgers and Frosties the outlets serve, the restauranteur also was a passionate advocate for adoption. Himself an adoptee at age 5, Thomas spent most of his adult life championing adoption and making inroads with employers to provide adoption benefits.

Now, even 10 years after his death, Thomas' spirit still lives on in the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the organization's annual listing of the nation's 100 Best Adoption-Friendly Workplaces. And no doubt, he's smiling down with pride at his own The Wendy's Company topping the list, offering adoptive employees a combination of up to $24,300 in adoption assistance and up to six weeks paid adoption leave.

"This is one of the highest honors our company can receive," says J. David Karam, president, North America of The Wendy's Company. "Dave Thomas was passionate for the cause of adoption, and he personally contacted hundreds of companies asking them to extend adoption benefits to employees. We're extremely proud to follow his lead and help our employees realize the joys of adoption."

Wendy's employee Brenda Overturf has used the adoption benefit twice. Brenda and her husband Ron adopted two children, Jimmy and Regina, from U.S. foster care eight years ago, when the siblings were 9 and 10 years old. This year, they fell in love with three more siblings waiting in foster care - Noah, 13; Olivia, 14; and Devon, 16 - and will finalize their adoptions in a few months.

Overturf says her family of seven was "meant to be," and adoption benefits helped make it possible. "Jimmy and Regina always wanted more brothers and sisters, and Ron and I were moved to help older children who might age out of foster care and be left on their own." Although she notes that adopting from foster care is affordable enough that the family did not use Wendy's financial benefit, "the six weeks of paid leave was invaluable. We needed the time to get to know our kids as individuals, and to prepare them for school."

HanesBrands, a newcomer to the DTFA list, made an exceptionally strong showing, debuting at No. 2. The company offers adoptive families up to $20,000 and two weeks paid leave, an enhancement of its adoption benefit made in recent years, says Annamarie S. D'Souza, HanesBrands vice president of HR, global compensation, benefits and HRIM. "Part of the HanesBrands legacy has always been to review our benefit offerings to ensure that we are providing benefits that meet the needs of each segment of our employee population," she says. "As we reviewed our adoption benefit during 2009, we wanted to be sure that we were considering the current economic situation and the impact that it may have on families interested in adopting. In addition, we felt we should pay particular attention to the growing need to place special needs children. We also understand the importance to provide time for the new family to bond appropriately. These factors were the key drives in decisions by our senior team to make improvements to our adoption program."


Five-year trends

Hanes is not alone in that decision; the caliber of benefits offered by employers has changed dramatically since DTFA launched the list five years ago. In 2007, an employer offering up to $10,000 and two weeks paid leave for adoption was ranked in the nation's top 10. Today, that employer would be tied for 34th place. Five years ago, an employer offering up to $5,000 and six weeks paid leave for adoption made the top half of the list at number 49. Today, that employer would just make the cut-off for the top 100.

Since DTFA began collecting data for the list in 2006, nearly 200 employers report establishing an adoption benefits policy and just as many said they enhanced their existing policy.

"Nobody knows exactly how many employers offer adoption benefits. But just from the sample of employers who have chosen to participate in our survey, it's remarkable that a significant number have established or increased adoption benefits in such challenging economic times," says Rita Soronen, DTFA president and CEO. "It verifies what business leaders tell us year after year - that adoption benefits are an important, affordable addition to their work/life package, and an important part of building an employee's morale and family."


2011 results

Rankings are based on DTFA's annual adoption benefits survey. In addition to the overall growth in the depth of adoption benefits, the 2011 survey reveals that organizations of every size and industry report offering adoption benefits. Winners in the Foundation's small size category (100 employees or less) offer up to $13,000 in adoption reimbursement and up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

Employers cite multiple factors influencing their decision to establish adoption benefits: employee requests for adoption (55%), equity for adoptive parents (68%), a family-friendly image (82%), a competitive work/life benefits package (85%) and because it is the right thing to do (86%).

Adoption benefits are also popular because they typically are low-cost and easy to administer, as DTFA survey participants consistently report that less than 1% of eligible employees will use the benefit in any given year.

Both full and part-time employees are eligible for adoption benefits at 55% of the companies surveyed. Most companies (66%) consider employees eligible immediately upon hire or within the first year of employment.

The average survey respondent offers up to $6,200 and up to five weeks of paid leave to employees who adopt (not sick, vacation or personal time). Sixty-two percent of employers also offer unpaid leave beyond any required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, ranging from one week to three years.

Most employers reimburse for specific adoption expenses, such as home studies, application fees, legal services, court proceedings, parental counseling, transportation, lodging and immigration. While financial adoption benefits generally apply equally to all employees who are eligible, employers sometimes graduate paid leave based on years of service and stipulate that if both parents are employees, they must share the leave.


Beyond basic benefits

Many employers go beyond benefits to support the cause of adoption. One example is RSM McGladrey, Inc./McGladrey & Pullen, LLP (No. 97, tie), a consulting firm headquartered in Bloomington, Ind. Its employee assistance program offers confidential resources at no cost for employees who are considering adoption or currently going through the adoption process. In addition, extensive adoption resources include specialist consultants, searches for agencies and guidance around starting the adoption process, adoption costs, explaining adoption to family and friends and managing individual or family stress. McGladrey features adoption success stories on its employee intranet to encourage utilization of the benefit.

A bevy of other resources also are offered at no cost for all parents, including: a new parent coach program, parenting webinars, child care provider referrals, a concierge program to help with non-work tasks and flexible work options.

Moss Adams (No. 76), a Seattle-based accounting and consulting firm, offers numerous resources to employees including state specific adoption specialists, adoption support groups, private adoption resources, and referrals to national organizations. And The Medicines Company (No. 26), a mid-sized pharmaceutical company headquartered in New Jersey, provides adoption consultation, resources and referrals for every step in the adoption process and every type of adoption.


Adoption stories

But for all the resource and referral services, and the financial and leave assistance, the best part of DTFA's annual list is hearing the real-life stories of employees whose families are made complete, thanks to adoption benefits.

Kevin Grindheim, an employee at Capital One (No. 97, tie), can sum up what Capital One's adoption benefits mean to him in just seven words - Dustin, Kyle, Travis, Michael, Cole, Caleb, Timmy - the names of the seven adopted children he and his wife Tammy are raising. Capital One's adoption benefits, the couple say, have been instrumental in making their big, happy family possible.

In addition to the financial assistance and paid leave benefits, the Grindheims have also taken full advantage of the Adoption Connection, an online resource created by the company. Through the site, they've been able to network with other Capital One families who have adopted, plus they've discovered helpful information regarding adoption agencies, professional services and even tax breaks.

Audrey Brown, MSW, a social worker at Cape Fear Valley Health (No. 86), used the health system's benefits to adopt her 14-year-old daughter, Priscilla. Brown and her husband Richard never really considered adoption, but changed their mind when they met Priscilla in an orphanage while visiting Uganda in 2009 on a mission trip.

Brown was thrilled to learn from a coworker that Cape Fear Valley Health had an adoption assistance program. "Knowing the health system was favorable toward adoptions helped us greatly," Brown says. "And it gave us a sense of emotional support and financial relief." The health system provides qualified employees up to $3,000 per adoption for adoption-related expenses and 12 weeks leave. The amount is raised to $5,000 if the adopted child has special needs.

Jamey Tielens, a research support specialist at Cornell University (No. 71), with his wife Heather adopted their son, Teo, from Ethiopia last year, and his heartfelt gratitude for the adoption benefits the university provides sums up employers' reasons for offering such supports - and they have nothing to do with balance sheets and bottom lines.

"The requirements to adopt from this country included two trips for both parents to Ethiopia. Obviously, this was a financial hardship on our family," Tielens says. "I heard about the adoption reimbursement from a fellow employee that had also adopted. I filled out the paperwork and the credit was transferred to our bank account in a matter of days. I cannot express to you how valuable this was for our family and the timing was perfect.

"Although the adoption credit was not a factor in the decision to adopt, we were aware of this resource and were able to consider this when planning the adoption and making travel arrangements. Our family is doing wonderfully and Teo, his big sister Libby, and mom and dad grow closer every day, and are constantly discovering new and exciting things together."


Top 10 Adoption-Friendly Workplaces

1. Wendy's/Arby's Group, Inc.

2. HanesBrands

3. Barilla America, Inc.

4. Liquidnet Holdings, Inc.

5. LSI Corporation

6. United Business Media LLC

7. Boston Scientific

8. (tie) Bloomberg

8. (tie) Putnam Investments

10. Vanguard Group


Benefits pros sound off in support of adoption benefits

Mary George Opperman, vice president for human resources and safety services at Cornell University (No. 71)

"Cornell University's commitment to a global, diverse community is enhanced by its commitment to providing families with the financial and informational resources to expand their families through adoption. The world, and Cornell, benefit from the support the Dave Thomas Foundation provides in making this commitment a reality.

"Eric Schueneman, senior manager of compensation at Barilla America Inc. (No. 3)

"Children need families and this is a special benefit that helps make dreams come true.

" Alison Sheehan, SVP of human resources at PGi (No. 80)

"Everyone knows having a baby is stressful and expensive. But adopting a child is a different type of stress and expense. Most companies have benefits that support birthing parents, but few offer the financial and time-away-from-work support that employees going through the adoption process need. If someone is considering adoption and the deciding factor is how they will pay the costs, or whether they can afford to take time off from work for the process, then maybe some assistance from their company can help alleviate those worries. We offer it as PGi because people need it and it's the right thing to do.

"Kathy Kost, VP of HR, LSI Corporation (No. 5)

"Adopting a child is a major life decision and we value families that seek to bring an adopted child into their lives. By offering financial assistance, work flexibility, as well as family-friendly policies, our goal is to mitigate some of the pressures and allow adoptive parents to focus on welcoming their new child."

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