By Les Gura

Rev. Maria Teresa Jones knew, as she learned about the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in February, that it would likely devastate many of her fellow employees with Wake Forest Baptist Health.

Jones, chaplaincy program manager for staff support, was in a unique position to help along with fellow staff support team members, Bruce Johnson and Chris Ehrlich, as well as chaplains James Ingram and Corinne Causby. One of the responsibilities of the support team is managing Wake Forest Baptist’s Employee Emergency Fund (EEF), which helps employees in financial distress because of an unexpected life circumstance that might prevent a mortgage, rent or car payment.

Working with her boss, Gary Gunderson, vice president of the Division of FaithHealth, they came up with a most simple idea when “shelter in place” orders were issued: How about the fund be used to pay two months’ worth of rent or mortgage (shelter) for employees’ loss of income as they were required to take unpaid furloughs averaging one week per month for four months during a time when Wake Forest Baptist had to focus all of its attention on potential COVID-19 patients and forego many of its regular clinical services? The decision was made to do this through the end of the fiscal year, by which time it was hoped some of the work restrictions would be eased.

From the mountains to the coast

Jones’ voice betrays her emotion in recalling hearing from so many people as applications for assistance arrived from across the spectrum of Wake Forest Baptist’s 25,000-plus employees, representing medical centers, clinics and affiliated practices. She listened to or read stories of people coping with unique and emotionally wrenching personal crises — while also facing furloughs because of pandemic-related job changes.

“We had colleagues from the mountains to the coast reaching out for help,” Jones says. “There was no specific category of people we were looking to help, no target group. Everybody that needed assistance received it. We lived our EEF commitment to inclusion and care for all our employees.”

Normally, the EEF might take on a couple of hundred applications a year; the maximum gift given out is $1,000. During the crisis period from February through the end of June, the fund handled 288 additional applications and paid out about $340,000; the $1,000 limit was allowed to be exceeded so that shelter payments were covered in full. The EEF absorbed the tax burden, too, so those receiving money will not have to declare it as income. Jones notes that 288 funded EEF applications equates to about 1,000 contacts, or people touched by spiritual care and financial support.

Devotion to protecting health

Recognition of the critical role employees have played throughout the pandemic has been in the minds of Wake Forest Baptist leadership throughout the crisis. Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, chief executive officer of Wake Forest Baptist Health, and Dr. Kevin High, president of the Wake Forest Baptist Health system, acknowledged the “selfless contributions” of all employees by announcing a $500 bonus to all staff in September.

“You administered or processed thousands of COVID-19 tests, quickly learned new workflows, delivered outstanding bedside care, comforted those who could not be with family, helped research new information about COVID-19, guaranteed medical supplies were available, cleaned rooms, delivered meals, and provided many other critical needs for both our patients and organization that are too numerous to count,” they wrote to staff. “Your patience and kindness have been as evident as your devotion to protecting the health of the communities we serve.”

Jones says the outpouring of thank you notes in writing, voicemails, emails and calls from those who received assistance from the EEF often brought her to tears.

“People were crying, overjoyed. Lots of employees were surprised,” she says. “They never in their wildest dreams expected their employer would cover the rent or mortgage for a couple of months. It gave employees peace of mind, especially those with minor children now needing to be home-schooled.”

EEF typically has an annual budget of about $250,000, and the effort to cover the additional funds needed to pay for the pandemic assistance was wide-ranging. There were individual gifts, employee contributions via payroll deduction, a donation by the Wake Forest Baptist Board of Directors, and, perhaps most important, a partnership with the Wake Forest Baptist’s Philanthropy division, which wound up contributing $357,000.

Jones says the partnership with Philanthropy will continue; the EEF must continue to replenish to cope with an anticipated difficult winter.

“We don’t have a vaccine yet, and flu season is around the corner,” Jones says. “Parents are home schooling, winter is coming with its higher utility bills. So yes, we’re preparing for the standard peak of the EEF in the fall and winter months, combined with the fact that we’re still in the middle of the pandemic.”