Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Office rules relaxed to follow loved ones

By Margery Beck
The Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. - Kris Sands often slips away to the break room at work to watch TV for developments in Iraq that could affect her stepson stationed in Kuwait.

"I always look to see if it's his unit on television," she said Monday from the Principal Financial Group offices in Grand Island, Neb.

Sands is on the clock during her TV breaks, but her bosses don't mind. They are among employers across the nation who say they have relaxed their rules in an effort to help workers with loved ones in the military. Company-sanctioned breaks to check television, radio and Internet reports in some places have become part of the work day.

In Virginia, state employees are allowed more liberal use of e-mail during work to keep in touch with relatives or friends in combat zones.

"The bottom line is that if these men and women can leave their homes, jobs and families to protect our freedom, then the least we can do is to help family and friends stay in touch with them while they are away," Gov. Mark Warner said.

State worker Carol Thomas, whose husband of 14 years was deployed to the Middle East, sent Warner a note of thanks.

"If we weren't allowed to do this, I definitely wouldn't be in touch with my husband as much," said Thomas, who e-mails her husband daily. "We're expecting our first child in June, so this means even more to us."

Most corporate efforts to support war-family employees are probably temporary, said Charles Lamphear, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bureau of Business Research. He said he isn't surprised by the extra steps businesses are taking.

"Any proprietor would be trying to do what they can to show support for their employees in that situation," he said.

Soon after the war began, State Farm Insurance installed big-screen televisions in the lunchroom of its Bloomington, Ill., headquarters to keep up on the war. "A small number of our employees are directly involved, a larger number have friends and families involved and all of us have something at stake in this war," State Farm spokesman Dick Luedke said.

St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island put up a world map that uses string to point out places where employees' loved ones are serving in the military. Each string is attached to a card that includes the names - and sometimes pictures - of each person.

In Normal, Ill., a kiosk at a Mitsubishi auto plant shows photos and information on four plant employees who have been deployed and six others who are children of employees.

Supporting families left behind is just as important as direct support of the troops themselves, said Sandie Sturch, a family readiness volunteer with the 4223rd Army Hospital Unit in Omaha.

"I know that many wives and husbands who recently had spouses deployed were able to take some time off during the deployment period," Sturch said. "I know some companies have actually allowed some soldiers to collect sick time and vacation time while they're gone. That kind of support is very important for families struggling to deal with loved ones being gone."

Sturch, whose own husband was deployed last month, also said the support doesn't have to be a company-sponsored event.

"The gals in my husband's office call at least once a week to make sure everything is OK and that I don't need anything," she said.

Principal Financial eased its rules after polling workers to find out how many were affected by the war. "We were amazed at how many employees were dealing with this," said Anita Lewandoski, a human resources consultant. "We have about 640 employees just in Grand Island, and I would say about 60 are affected."

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