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Adoption Programs Gaining Ground

March 29, 2004
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Benefit Design and Communication, Attendance, Featured Article, Compensation

L ooking back, Suzanne Tosini still can’t quite believe that she and her husband flew to Siberia in the dead of winter to adopt a baby. After months spent filling out mountains of paperwork, the trip was the culmination of their effort to adopt a child overseas. Even though the Tosinis have two children of their own, they’d always wanted to adopt. In July 2001, they contacted an international adoption agency and began a complex procedure, a process that cost thousands of dollars. Then they waited.

    Throughout the ordeal, they had support from Calvert Group Ltd., a $9 billion financial services company in Bethesda, Maryland, where Suzanne is vice president of product development and strategy. Since 1986, the company has provided direct financial assistance to employees to defray costs associated with adopting children. In addition to receiving a great deal of moral support, Tosini was able to claim part of her adoption expenses.

    Once home with their Russian infant, Joseph Ivan, the Tosinis began sorting through the bills. Fortunately, the Calvert Group chipped in $5,000 to help pay for travel, legal expenses, adoption-agency fees and interpreters. Though the money covered only part of the cost, it was a welcome help. Calvert also provided 10 paid personal days so that Tosini could be with her new child. "There are people who max out their credit cards to pay for this," she says. "The money certainly made things a lot easier, but more than anything, it was just a great gesture that showed that my company really cared about us."

    In a survey of 975 employers Hewitt Associates reports that 36 percent reimbursed employees for adoption expenses last year. Eighty-one percent of the organizations are Fortune 500 companies. The average maximum reimbursement rose about $100 last year, to slightly more than $3,700. Human resources executives say that the real payoff to a company is engendering employee loyalty. "The take-up rate on the benefit is very low, so it costs relatively little to offer it compared to the increase in employee morale and goodwill that it can provide," says Jon Van Cleve, a work/life consultant at Hewitt.

    The National Adoption Center in Philadelphia estimates that less than one-half of 1 percent of eligible employees use adoption benefits each year. Still, human resources executives link adoption benefits to high employee retention. "People who are trying to adopt children are putting out a lot more money than people who have children through natural birth," says Robert Cafarella, director of benefits for OhioHealth, a not-for-profit company that manages hospitals and health-care centers in central Ohio. "We cover childbirth in our health plan, so we decided why not cover adoption, too."

    Calvert is one of a growing number of companies that offer adoption benefits. Human resources analysts say that it’s a trend that has been quietly gathering steam in recent years. "Adoption coverage has spread big-time in the last decade," says John Haslinger, who heads the health and welfare practice of Mellon Financial Corp., a consulting firm in New York City. Although it’s common in big firms--Haslinger estimates that half of Fortune 500 companies offer some form of adoption help--smaller firms also are beginning to offer adoption benefits.

    With only 177 full-time employees, Calvert is one of the smallest firms to offer adoption support. The benefit is folded into Calvert’s work/life program, which helped the firm earn a spot on Working Mother magazine’s list of the top 100 U.S. companies to work for. Calvert bills itself as a "socially responsible" investment house, and that sentiment extends to employees as well, says Dennis Truskey, vice president of human resources. "Given the nature of our work, we don’t stand over employees to make sure they’re doing a good job. Their work relies on [using] their heads and their hearts, so that’s where we try to motivate them."

    One of OhioHealth’s hospitals is Grant Medical Center in Columbus, where John Leber has worked as an X-ray technician for five years. Leber and his wife adopted a 15-month-old Chinese girl in 2002, using OhioHealth’s $3,000 maximum benefit to help pay expenses. "It has deterred me from taking several other jobs, including one at a hospital about five minutes from my house," Leber says.

    Patricia Green has also benefited from OhioHealth’s program. After trying for eight years to have children, she and her husband, Scott, decided that adoption was the best alternative. The $3,000 adoption benefit has spared them from going into debt, they say. "Without it, we would have had to take out loans," says Patricia, who is volunteer services coordinator at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus.

    Cafarella says that helping OhioHealth employees to adopt makes sense financially because it is the fair thing to do. He estimates that the cost of adoption can be $12,000. By contrast, hospitalization costs associated with having a child are about $4,000, not including doctors’ fees. About three to six employees request maternity assistance each year, he says. "For a $2 billion organization like ours, that’s a drop in the bucket."

    Structuring a successful adoption program involves listening to employees, says Maureen Corcoran, vice president of diversity for Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark. The $20.8 billion company instituted adoption benefits in 1993 and has relied on employee feedback to tweak the program over time. Prudential doubled its adoption payout to $5,000 per child in 1999. Employees who adopt special-needs children can receive up to $6,000. Several years ago, Prudential also began granting two weeks of paid leave to new parents, including those who adopt. "You have to have the motivation to offer these programs," Corcoran says. "For Prudential, it was tied to our commitment to diversity. Employees are building families in a variety of ways, and it’s not appropriate to acknowledge one way over another."

    More companies are coming to that realization, says adoption expert Adam Pertman. He notes that a growing number of companies have begun treating adoption much as they do natural childbirth, which typically gets covered by medical insurance. "Companies are starting to figure out that their employees who adopt children have been getting shortchanged," says Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York. "They’ve got employees who’ve been paying into huge health plans but who haven’t gotten the same coverage as employees who start families by childbirth."

    Experts say that it’s typically employees who prod their companies to offer adoption assistance.

Workforce Management, April 2004, pp. 61-61 -- Subscribe Now!

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