Doing The Right Things When Faced With Employee Illness

Article by:
Beth Kloos, EO Cleveland
Beth Kloos
EO Cleveland

Beth is the Owner and President of R and J Corporation dba: Haynes Manufacturing and OCS Process Systems. She has been an EO member since 2002. Beth can be reached via e-mail at bkloos@haynesmfg.com.

I’ve been tested before. Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve dealt with ornery customers, economic downturns and powerless leaders. After all, that’s part of the entrepreneurial experience. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I encountered an experience that truly challenged me as a business owner and human being.

I had to deal with the death of an employee.

I run a successful business that prides itself on employing hardworking, loyal and passionate people. Every day, my staff overcomes business challenges using their many years of experience. However, one employee faced a serious, non-business challenge: leukemia. For 27 months, he battled with the illness, only to pass away at the early age of 21.

This employee worked at my company for only four months before he was diagnosed. During his very difficult time, I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, what to say or how to proceed. All I knew was that I wanted to make sure I did the right thing. I found myself in a unique situation, and I wasn’tprepared to handle it.

As entrepreneurs, we’re prepared for almost everything under the sun, and then something like this occurs and it tugs at your heart as much as it challenges your decision-making skills. In this particular situation, I encountered people who said, “Too bad for you— what’s that doing to your health insurance costs?” Or they said, “Wow, is there any way you could terminate that employee and get him off of your benefits before your next rate renewal?”

I had a difficult time hearing these things, and I feared the type of decisions I’d have to make regarding this sad and difficult situation. And yet, I had to act quickly to protect both this employee and the business. In this particular circumstance, I worked hard to make sure that all of my “i”s were dotted and “t”s crossed when it came to my decisions. As it turns out, this young, at-the-time-healthy employee had filled out all the necessary paperwork when he was hired.

Thankfully, he subscribed to our policies and procedures. When this employee became sick, I thoroughly reviewed our benefit plan documents. I considered the following questions during my review:

What constitutes eligibility? What are qualifying events? When do employees qualify for independent health insurance? What deadlines should I be aware of? Thankfully, I was fortunate to have a good broker and a good benefit plan in place before the employee became ill. This afforded me an opportunity to handle the situation elegantly.

After I confided with some more of my peers, I began to think about where the employee was coming from. How was he handling this fatal news, and what were his concerns from a financial standpoint? What happens when he has to take off a substantial amount of time, but is still in need of benefits and a paycheck? How do you continue the paycheck benefits and keep the work going at the same time? As you can imagine, there were a lot of questions to consider.

This is where I discovered a secret. For me, the secret was having short-term and long-term disability insurance. Because our benefits included disability insurance, this employee was allowed to take time off without worrying about a missing paycheck. I found that the disability benefit was the one benefit that tied all the benefits together. It allowed me to maintain my compassion while reassuring his family that they wouldn’t lose their house in the process of losing their son.

In the end, this unfortunate event tested me as an entrepreneur unlike any event ever has … and I’m a better businessperson for it.

***

Overall, I learned a lot from this experience. Because of this unexpected situation, I learned the value of offering proper benefits to aid the one group of people you’re dependent on for sucess: your staff. Here are some other lessons I learned along the way:

1. Know and understand your plan documents before a catastrophic situation occurs

2. Audit your benefit invoices and applications monthly, or at least quarterly, to ensure those that should be covered are, and vice versa

3. Have a good broker and good benefits before you need them

4. Know “the secret” of what will help you continue to be a compassionate and honorable employer when things get tough

5. Avoid the situations/decisions that could “keep you up at night” and prevent you from doing the right thing when it comes to dealing with benefits and employees faced with illness

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