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PEF putting help (you may not have known you have) where you can easily find it and use it

By SHERRY HALBROOK

PEF is concerned that you may be experiencing high levels of stress or personal problems during this pandemic and the transition back to work as worksites reopen, and the union wants you to know that help is available to you as a joint benefit provided by PEF, other state employee unions and the state as your employer.  It’s called the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and it’s available here.

PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio, Charles Roland and Maureen Kellman

“This is not a new benefit,” said PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio, “but it is a valuable one that you might not know is there for you, or what it does or how to access it.  That’s why PEF is making a handy “one-stop-shop” opportunity for you to find lots of useful information about EAP on the union’s website.  And this information will be updated to keep it current and relevant, especially right now with the extraordinary stressors and challenges so many members and their families are facing.”

Charles Roland, who represents PEF on the multi-union and NYS EAP committee, said the current crisis has spotlighted the need to make members aware of this benefit and increase your ease in accessing it.

“Take a look. You will be surprised to see how much help this benefit can provide,” Roland said.

“EAP is essentially a referral service. You bring your concerns, issues, and needs for help and EAP helps you find the help you need. The PS&T contract pays for this benefit and it costs you nothing to access the referrals,” Roland continued.

“EAP information has been hard to find on the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations website,” DiAntonio said. “You won’t have to search for it anymore. PEF is making it easy.”

PEF President Wayne Spence appointed DiAntonio to head a work group tasked with gathering the best and most up-to-date EAP information and getting it posted on the union’s website.  The group also includes Roland, Vincent Cicatello, Conrad Davis and Maureen Kellman, who is  an EAP coordinator at the state Department of Financial Services where she also is an associate actuary. PEF associate counsel Debra Greenberg is serving as staff for the group.

“President Spence also asked us to work with PEF leaders to assess and identify agencies or worksites where EAP supports are not readily available to members,” Roland said. “We found 17 vacant EAP coordinator positions, and that’s a lot.

“We identified a lot of areas that needed shoring up. Wayne asked us to act quickly to shore up and fast-track EAP during the pandemic, so we’ve been working hard to gather additional services. The need is very great right now.  More than 100 employees at South Beach Psychiatric Center where I work have lost time because of the virus and some have been hospitalized, Roland said. “Sometimes people who come to EAP for help don’t need a referral, they just need someone to talk to about what they are going through.

“You don’t have to be a PEF member to be an EAP coordinator, they come from other bargaining units as well. But it helps to have certain skills or experience such as social work. The Governor’s Office of Employee Relations provides training.”

EAP goes further than just referrals. A classic example came up a few weeks ago when the DFS realized its employees were faced with unprecedented challenges and stress.  They asked Kellman to create a virtual “lunch and learn” program to help her more than 1,000 coworkers in New York City get through it.  She did and the program was so well received that DFS quickly shared it with its employees throughout the state, recommended it to “EAP Central” staff at GOER, and now it is being shared throughout state service.

Kellman lives on Long Island and works in Manhattan, areas that have experienced extremely high levels of COVID-19 infections and deaths.  It has taken a heavy toll even on those who have not been infected.

Just as the pandemic quickly evolved and overwhelmed the downstate area, the stress levels and needs of PEF members and their families also evolved quickly over that time frame, Kellman said.

“From mid-March when the governor ordered all non-essential workers to stay home to mid-April, people were feeling very stressed, uncertain and scared,” Kellman said. “And that was heightened by being in the epicenter of the pandemic. Then people we knew started dying and the calls I was getting for EAP help suddenly jumped way up.  Expressions of fear and anxiety  were rampant in the comments from DFS employees on the department’s website. That’s when the department asked me to prepare and present a virtual program to help people understand how to get through this.

“DFS is exceptionally supportive of EAP and I’m allowed to email everyone in the department.  DFS is really, really good in this regard and I wish all state agencies were like that,” Kellman said.

As social distancing and other measures began to flatten the peak of infections in the city and the state, Kellman said she has seen the concerns employees bring to her have evolved as well.

“It’s shifted in the last three weeks,” she said. “Now, it’s more work-related issues, conflicts with supervisors. Employees say their supervisor doesn’t understand what they are experiencing at home and in their personal lives as they try to work from home.  And they are worried about how to cope with reopening and returning to their worksite.”

Kellman said that although state employees have held onto their jobs and paychecks, their spouses, adult children or other household members may have lost their jobs.  Financial stress and uncertainty has combined with the trauma of widespread grief and bereavement.  People have lost touch with their family, friends, work and social networks, they have been isolated and forced to fend for themselves in unprecedented ways. These sudden, radical changes can lead to loneliness, depression and loss of confidence in themselves and their ability to cope and control their lives. People may find it harder to resist dangerous addictive behaviors.

If you are approaching retirement, you may see your investments have lost value or you may have lost your spouse to the virus or suddenly find you need to raise orphaned grandchildren. The rug has been pulled right out from under you and all you have worked and planned to achieve.

These stressors are raising the incidence of domestic violence, child abuse and divorce. People are losing their jobs, their family members, and their sense of security. Their children lost their schools and day care, everything is destabilized and everyone feels insecure.

If you live upstate, you may not be experiencing this crisis as intensely as people at the epicenter, Kellman said. And you may not grasp why coworkers are responding and behaving differently than they did just a couple of months ago.

“You have to understand, I’ve attended six virtual funerals of people I know in just the last two weeks.  And tomorrow is the funeral for one of the EAP coordinators in the city who died of COVID. She’s the second one to die. No one is immune. We all feel our vulnerability.

“Remember: Nothing is normal now. You need to take time and recognize how you and other people are feeling, have dialogue about it and set reasonable goals,” Kellman said.

“Your usual activities and expectations don’t work now and nothing is normal. So, rember: “We are all dealing with this crisis. But every crisis comes to an end. Try to outlive this crisis. Reach out to the people who can help you.”

Along with your family, friends and your work supervisor, you may need some professional advice and help navigating this topsy-turvy environment.  That is where EAP can help.

Roland said some state agencies do not have their EAP coordinator positions filled, and many have to fund them out of their agency budgets. Currently at least 17 EAP posts are vacant, but if your agency doesn’t have a coordinator, you will be connected to someone else who can help you.  All of that information and much more is part of tools assembled for you on the PEF website.

“Keep checking back from time to time, because we will keep updating this information” DiAntonio said. “PEF knows that it’s important to support the emotional wellbeing of our members and their families, especially now, and we are working hard to do that.”