EAP: What is it and how does it work?
By KATE MOSTACCIO
Everyone is feeling some form of stress these days. Children are attending school virtually or using hybrid models and wearing masks throughout the day. Parents are juggling their jobs and remote learning or facing unemployment. Businesses are closing or closed due to COVID-19.
The list of stressors is long and unique to each person. Which is why it’s important for PEF members to know there is help available through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
“The COVID situation has created anxiety and chaos and uncertainty for many of us,” said PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio, a panelist for a workshop on EAP during the 42nd Annual PEF Convention, held virtually this year.
“This came out of nowhere and changed every aspect of our world,” she said. “Our work world, our home world, worrying about exposure to a deadly virus, worrying about loved ones at home who might be vulnerable, not being sure if you can do your job and socially distance, not having appropriate PPE. All this created such angst.”
DiAntonio said it is vital to talk about the tools available to PEF members through EAP. PEF brought together the EAP Workgroup, made up of DiAntonio, Charles Roland, Conrad Davis, Maureen Kellman and Vincent Cicatello, along with PEF Training Specialist Tammy Carney and PEF Associate Counsel Debra Greenberg, to facilitate getting the word out to members about EAP benefits.
Maureen Kellman, a PEF member at the Department of Financial Services, serves as an EAP coordinator at her agency and provided information on the program and where EAP can offer assistance.
“Article 10 of your contract provides for the EAP Program,” Kellman said. “It is funded by PEF and other unions within New York state that support New York state employees. EAP provides help for employees and their family members and it is free and completely confidential.”
EAP can help members with:
• Child-care issues
• Domestic violence
• Elder care
• Financial concerns
• Grief and loss
• Marital problems
• Substance abuse
• Relationship problems
• Wellness programs
• Work issues
• Legal issues
“We are all experiencing some combination of those,” Kellman said. “We are encouraging all of you to reach out to your EAP coordinator.”
Kellman dispelled talk about EAP providers sharing employees’ business with management.
“As EAP providers, we are all trained to be 100 percent confidential,” she said. “The only time we cannot be is if we feel that you may hurt yourself or hurt others.”
If a member still feels uncomfortable talking to someone at their worksite, who they fear has management connections, they can reach out to any EAP provider throughout the state. Kellman recommends remaining in-house, however, since that coordinator would best know your agency and its work culture.
Members may also worry about EAP being used by management as a form of discipline.
“In my experience, whenever management asks EAP to get involved it’s usually a good thing, not a bad thing,” Kellman said. “One thing I always desire is employees to come to EAP first, before a disciplinary situation, because almost 100 percent of the time whatever the issue they are going through that is affecting their job performance is something EAP can handle.”
Management can’t require an employee to use EAP.
“It’s voluntary, they can’t force it,” Kellman said. “One hundred percent of the time it is a good thing that they come. Most of the time it can help their case.”
DiAntonio urged members who strongly feel their EAP coordinator is not neutral to contact their field representative.
PEF member Charles Roland has been involved in EAP for more than 15 years and was appointed by President Wayne Spence to the state’s Work-Life Services Advisory Board.
He gave a brief overview of the history of EAP, beginning with the first employee assistance program established in 1917 by R.H. Macy.
“It was not for altruistic reasons,” he said. “They thought it would help the bottom line.”
In the 1940s, EAP programs were primarily based on the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) model. In the 50s, they began to assist employees with mental health issues. By the 1970s, EAP encompassed almost any personal problem that impacted negatively on employees. Today, EAP programs focus on issues that negatively impact job performance, but they also offer trainings and wellness programs, and can make referrals to services.
The first EAP for New York state employees was established in 1976 and covered nine Department of Mental Hygiene (now the Office of Mental Health) worksites in the Mid-Hudson Region. With that program’s success, the EAP model spread and in 1983, the state and public employee unions, recognizing the importance of these services, created the EAP Advisory Board to promote and oversee all EAP programs, in addition to other programs for staff.
“Both the state and employees recognize the benefit of a healthy workforce,” Roland said. “The state and PEF continue to agree to provide work-life service programs, including EAP. They assist employees to be more productive and healthy.”
PEF’s role in EAP
At its core, PEF’s role with EAP is to help promote the EAP program, said PEF Associate Counsel and EAP liaison, Debra Greenberg.
“It is something that we negotiated through collective bargaining because we thought it would be a good benefit for our members,” Greenberg said. “We also need to always keep in mind and recognize that it’s a joint labor/management program. We’re equal partners with management. We all know from our union work that sometimes that can be a struggle.”
EAP Committees at the agency level are vital to keeping that balance.
“We always want to be able to advocate for the union’s position to make sure the program is working for our members,” Greenberg said. “There may be programs that are of interest to members that we’d like an agency to initiate. We may have a coordinator that needs training or needs to be able to have travel time to go to a training.”
A member’s first point of contact with EAP is the on-site coordinator, who is supposed to be neutral. Having an equal footing on agency-level committees and a say in who chairs and co-chairs the committee helps ensure that.
“The chair oversees the EAP coordinator,” Greenberg said. “If it’s a management person, who people maybe don’t trust so much, that is not going to be a great situation for our members.” Decisions on the committee are made by consensus, so the union representatives can weigh in on the chair position and if it does end up a member of management, there can be a co-chair from the union side to keep the balance.
The chair position is important.
“They make sure the coordinator has resources they need and advocate for that,” Greenberg said. “Private office space away from HR, release time they need. That’s always a struggle. They review monthly reports of the coordinator. They make sure they have email that’s not monitored by management.”
PEF members on the committees can really make a difference.
“One of the key things these committees do is recommend candidates for the EAP coordinator position,” Greenberg said. “It’s important for our members who serve on those committees to advocate for coordinator candidates that will be trusted by our members.”
Conrad Davis, who raised the alarm that EAP services would be crucial to PEF members during this public health and economic crisis, said EAP committees are the driving administrative force at the local level.
“They are the closest advocacy group to members and provide immediate support to the EAP coordinator,” Davis said. PEF members on these committees should be invited to membership meetings and other functions to promote them and their services to members.
Access EAP tools and resources on the PEF website at www.pef.org/eap-toolkit.
“Most, if not all, of these resources are free, confidential, and available 24-7, Monday-Friday,” said Vincent Cicatello.
Cicatello highlighted some of the information in the toolkit, including an agency listing of EAP coordinators, a link to the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) Emotional Support Line, information on the OMH Crisis Text Line, webinars on COVID, and a link to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) free, confidential therapy via phone, video or text.