Foundation creates program to help workers in need

In the coming months, struggling Johnson County employees will have a new resource to turn to as they navigate difficulties in their lives.

Workers will be able to find reliable transportation, navigate divorce and handle personal family struggles. They can connect with agencies providing assistance with housing, furthering their education or finding childcare.

The Johnson County Community Foundation, with the help of a $200,000 Lilly Endowment grant, is launching the county’s first Employee Resource Network. The 10-year-old nationally tested program provides "success coaches" in local workplaces, giving employees access to a confidential conduit when they need help with a problem. 

"This is a combination of case management, social services and educational opportunities," said Gail Richards, president and CEO of the Johnson County Community Foundation. "It combines a lot of things into positives both for employers and employees."

Partnering with Aspire, the county’s economic development and chamber alliance, as well as the United Way of Johnson County, Ivy Tech Community College and local industry, the community foundation is in the process of tailoring the program specifically to Johnson County.

Officials hope the Employee Resource Network will become a valuable tool ensuring workers get the help they need, while assisting businesses in retaining the best people in the local workforce.

"We do have a lot of HR people who call us for this type of thing. It dedicates someone to really spend the time they need with that individual," said Nancy Lohr Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County. "Life happens. We all run into roadblocks. So it’s nice for those employers to have something where employees can reach out and really talk through some problems."

Community leaders have been looking at an Employer Resource Network model for several years. The program is overseen by ERN USA, which developed the system of placing success coaches in the workplace of participating companies.

Success coaches are confidential resources that employees can access, providing a direct conduit to community resources for issues they may be struggling with. Businesses who participate in the program buy “shares” in the success coach, and the coach then allocates their time according to those shares.

The idea is to give employees a trained person to go to when they’re having difficulty with a personal problem, outside of the human resources department at their workplace, Richards said.

"Those people are too busy recruiting and trying to keep people, that they don’t have time if an employee has an issue like childcare or transportation or rent," she said. "It’s confidential; the only time we’d go back to report to HR is if there was some safety issue identified."

The key component in creating the program has been the Lilly Endowment grant, which the community foundation announced it had received Monday.

The $200,000 is part of the endowment’s Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow initiative, created in 1990 to help local communities develop the philanthropic capacity to identify local needs and challenges. Johnson County was one of 84 recipients of the most recent phase of the grants, which made $125 million available.

In 2019, the community foundation was awarded $100,000 from the grant initiative to gather local organizations and businesses to help identify and prioritize challenges and opportunities within the county.

Through that planning, it became clear the top issue in Johnson County was workforce development.

In August 2019, the county’s unemployment rate was 2.8%. That created recruitment and retention problems for local businesses, Richards said.

The coronavirus pandemic changed that dynamic, as unemployment had risen since that time. The local unemployment rate in September was 4.6%. 

"With the ongoing health crisis and higher unemployment rate, new issues have surfaced among businesses and their employees making an (Employee Resource Network) even more critical," Richards said.

Since receiving the grant, community foundation leaders have invited more than 20 county businesses to take part in the Employee Resource Network. Member companies will be the ones driving the program, including identifying the ideal success coach for the county and overseeing their activity.

Officials anticipate at least five companies will take part in the program, with the potential for more, Richards said. 

"We’re excited to get this started. We’re in the exploratory phase of identifying companies, putting a core team together, getting job descriptions and marketing materials together," she said. "ERN USA is 10 years old, and has a track record of doing this across the country. We have a model to go off."

The $200,000 will help fund the pilot Employee Resource Network program for two years. The hope is at that point, it will be self-sustaining, and someone else can take over employing the success coach, Richards said.

The accelerated planning process is ongoing, with a launch date planned for spring 2021 or earlier, Richards said.

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Employee Resource Network

What: A program placing "success coaches" with local businesses, which employees can reach out when dealing with personal problems.

Who: Organized by the Johnson County Community Foundation, with the help of partners such as Aspire Economic Development + Chamber Alliance, Ivy Tech Community College, United Way of Johnson County and local businesses.

How it’s funded: Through a $200,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment’s Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow initiative

How it works: Success coaches, or confidential resources that employees can access, are placed in the workplace of companies participating in the program. The coaches provide a direct conduit to community resources for issues they may be struggling with. Businesses who participate in the program buy “shares” in the success coach, and the coach then allocates their time according to those shares.