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Emergency Alaska Preacher: The 'EAP' of the Last Frontier

An oil and gas company operating in Alaska has an employee assistance program in place, but says such a plan might not be able to react quickly enough, given the remote setting. A firm offering in-house chaplain services is there to fill the void.

May 8, 2012
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In Alaska, where long, dark winters and a sense of isolation are piled onto everyday work-life stressors, one employer is taking the unusual step of bringing chaplains into the workplace.

Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Co. enlisted Marketplace Chaplains USA to provide in-house chaplain services to its 150 workers in Alaska. Marketplace Chaplains, which was founded in 1984 and operates in nearly all 48 lower states, serves more than a half-million employees and their families.

Greg Lalicker, president of Hilcorp Energy, says the chaplain service is "a great way to promote well-being among our employees."

Hilcorp has an employee assistance program in place, but Lalicker says such plans may not be able to react quickly enough, given the remote settings.

"Our people can rely on the chaplain service to be there in situations where a traditional EAP wouldn't be able to help," Lalicker says.

Jennifer Linnell, one of the chaplains working at Hilcorp, agrees.

"An EAP comes in after a crisis," Linnell says. "Chaplains can be there to head off a crisis because we are on-site prior to things happening. If there's trouble in a marriage, it can be talked through before a divorce."

A chaplain has been on-site at Hilcorp offices in the Alaskan cities of Kenai and Anchorage about once a week since February. The chaplain typically gets acquainted with workers and offers counseling to those who seek it out. The chaplains also attend monthly all-staff meetings.

Chaplains in Alaska serving Hilcorp say the response from workers has been positive.

"They are stunned that the company would provide this," Linnell says. "People aren't used to receiving care so freely."

Linnell, who before becoming a chaplain worked in human resources for another oil and gas company in Alaska, said there are unique challenges to living in the Last Frontier.

"Moving to Alaska, there are things you have to deal with," she said. "You can't drive to the next state, for instance."

There are the long, dark winters, as many as 24 hours of daylight in the summer, the remoteness and the transient nature of many residents who move in and out frequently, Linnell and other chaplains say.

Many employees at Hilcorp in Alaska travel off-site to remote locations to work on oil and gas pipelines, far from family, for weeks at a time.

"Oftentimes folks that work in remote locations cannot be with family in times of need," Lalicker says.

That's where the chaplains come in. The chaplains are available around the clock to employees and family members.

"Having the chaplains available any time and anywhere allows them to offer comfort and assistance to their loved ones when he or she may otherwise be unable to do so," Lalicker says.

Marketplace Chaplains, which is based in Plano, Texas, charges on a per-employee basis of about $5 to $10 per worker, depending on the size of the company, according to a company spokesman.

Brian Horner, division director for Marketplace Chaplains, said the chaplain service fills a gap that traditional EAPs may not be able to fulfill.

"The reality is people don't have connections they once did with a pastor, rabbi or priest," Horner says. "Here comes a person with no agenda except offering counsel, to lend an ear."

The chaplains also are attuned to business-world concerns, he adds. "We know what it means that a person has to get out payroll or meet a deadline."

Teresa Cappell, another chaplain working at Hilcorp who previously counseled women in prison and correctional officers, said the remoteness of Alaska causes immense pressure. "Here in Alaska, so many workers have to take long flights and spend two weeks or more away from their families. It's a big stressor."

The first day at Hilcorp, Cappell heard about illnesses, concerns for other employees and questions about different belief systems. "Generally it was getting to know them and building trust," she says.

Being a familiar face around the workplace is important. "Sometimes you don't even have to say anything; you can just be a presence," she says. "Listening is one of the biggest parts of our jobs, and asking questions that will bring out what the real issue is."

The chaplains interviewed for this story said that some employees questioned whether they were there to proselytize, but such worries were quickly eased when the purpose of the program was explained.

"The reception is very warm and welcoming," says Levi Smith, a pastor in Anchorage for the past 12 years who recently signed on with Marketplace Chaplains. "People seem to be impressed that the company cares about them to this degree."

Lalicker says he hopes the service will benefit employees.

"We all have challenges in our lives," he says. "If having the chaplain service helps just one employee—and it has—we feel it's an important part of our organization."

Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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