The Ten-Minute Manager's Guide to...Employee Benefits
By Virginia Gerst, Special to R&I
The paycheck no longer is the bottom line in attracting and retaining foodservice employees.
As the economy heats up, many chains are revving up benefit packages and human-resources policies to help keep operations staffed. Programs range from adoption reimbursement and legal assistance offered by T.G.I. Friday’s to pet and automobile insurance at Rock Bottom Restaurants.
“Best-in-class companies are taking a look at what they are offering,” says Teresa Siriani, president of People Report, a Dallas-based research and consulting firm that focuses on work-force issues in the foodservice industry. “They realize health insurance and 401(k)s are the basics. Operators are asking what else they can offer.”
Qdoba Mexican Grill is gearing up to give its employees lessons in skills needed for everyday life.
“For an hourly worker, or someone at entry-level management, the idea of buying a home can be very scary,” says Mike Speck, director of human resources for the Wheat Ridge, Colo.-based fast-casual chain. So, says Speck, can purchasing a car or unraveling the mysteries of healthcare.
Set to begin in January, a pilot program for employees in Denver, St. Louis and Seattle will offer workshops on these subjects and more. Local vendors in each field—from real estate agents to automobile dealers—will share their expertise with Qdoba workers. Merchants will be screened to ensure that messages remain commercial-free.
The presentations will be “simple but informative.” In the car-buying session, for example, agents will explain differences between leasing and buying an automobile; a dealership business manager will discuss documentation needed to seal the deal along with options such as extended warranties and rust-proofing; and a banker will zero in on loans and interest.
Sessions will be short, “because time is valuable,” and may consist of several levels, such as Financing I and II.
The goal is for employees to be able to buy a house, lease a cellphone, register for healthcare and walk into an automobile dealership with confidence.
“We are giving our employees the ability to do things that improve the quality of their lives,” says Speck. “This is going to make them look at themselves differently, and look at their jobs differently too.”
Aid is as near as the telephone or Internet for the 6,500 workers at Rock Bottom Restaurants. The Louisville, Colo.-based chain’s Employee Assistance Program offers confidential counseling on subjects ranging from family relationships and legal issues to elder care and drug and alcohol abuse.
Implemented in September 2004, the program is available to workers from the first day of employment. Counseling, in English and Spanish, is given by trained professionals who work for the company’s health insurance provider.
The program “creates a caring environment,” for the Rock Bottom staff, according to Benefits Manager Jennifer Saperstein. “It helps them through a variety of problems that they may need to talk through with someone.”
Some issues can be worked out in a single conversation. More-serious problems are “bumped up” to senior specialists.
The Road to Wellville
Restaurant chains increasingly are willing to invest in their employees’ health, says Larry Hicks, senior consultant for Philadelphia-based consulting firm Hay Group.
“We do a benefits survey every year,” says Hicks. “The main trend we found this year was more rigorous disease- or condition-management programs for employees with chronic illnesses where self-care is a major factor.”
Offered at no charge to employees, health-management programs focus on workers with illnesses such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes. Those with chronic back and neck problems and behavioral health issues related to drug or alcohol abuse also are targeted.
Employees can request more-frequent contact with medical professionals and may be given electronic devices to monitor their condition.
“You are dealing with cases in which patient involvement pays big dividends,” says Hicks. “If a worker is diabetic and doesn’t follow an insulin regimen, the ramifications will be serious and an operator’s medical claims will increase.”
Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday’s managed-care service “gives employees someone to talk to about their medical condition,” says Senior Vice President Anne Varano. “Healthcare professionals counsel workers on staying healthy. We obviously are trying to manage claim costs, but we also are trying to look out for our employees’ well-being.”
T.G.I. Friday’s regularly surveys its employees to learn what benefits they feel are important, and educational support always scores high, according to Anne Varano, senior vice president of human resources and communications for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, the chain’s parent company.
In response, the casual-dining chain offers tuition assistance. Money for hourly workers is allocated on an escalating scale: $1,000 for employees on the job for one year, $1,500 for two-year employees; and $2,000 for those who have worked at Friday’s for three years.
The chain also partners with the National Restaurant Association to offer 20 annual scholarships of $2,000 each for hourly employees studying restaurant management. “The two can provide an employee $4,000 for college education,” Varano points out.
Salaried employees enrolled in college, graduate school or English-as-a-second-language courses receive 100% reimbursement if they earn a B or better, and 50% reimbursement if their grade is a C. The maximum assistance is $5,000 a year, and recipients must be full-time (25 hours or more) employees.
The Eat’n Park Hospitality Group also sees a benefit to education. The Pittsburgh-based chain has awarded college scholarships to its employees since 1991. In 2005, 90 hourly workers received a total of $77,000. Additional scholarships are given to students planning foodservice careers.
“The scholarships are a reward for employees and a recruitment tool for management,” says Karen Bolden, vice president of human resources. She notes that Tony White, Eat’n Park’s director of employee relations, and Deb Malley, director of community marketing, were both scholarship winners, hired by the chain after they earned their degrees.
A waiter, dishwasher or other hourly employee of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises who is strapped for cash because of a personal catastrophe can get help from The Lettuce Help You Fund, a new program administered by the Chicago-based multiconcept operator.
“In the past, our employees would pass the hat to help a teammate,” says Mitch Langeler, director of employee relations. “It seemed like such a great thing to do, we wanted to formalize it.”
Established with “a substantial dollar amount” from the company, the employee-funded program is open to hourly employees who have worked 90 days or more.
Hourly workers who choose to participate pay a minimum of $1 per paycheck; tipped workers contribute at least $26 a year. As of August 20, some 1,000 employees had signed up.
Workers faced with unexpected hardship register their request with Langeler, who documents and substantiates the claims. Three hourly employees, selected from 25 who wrote letters expressing interest in participating, vote on the request. Langeler chairs the committee but does not vote.
“The neat thing about this benefit is that it is a fund for hourly employees managed by hourly employees,” he says. “On a tangible level, it will probably result in reduced turnover. When people feel taken care of, they stay with us and create a better work environment.”
Virginia Gerst is a Chicago- based freelance writer.