The Hughes County Commission voted on Monday, Dec. 2, to try something new for its employees next year: An Employee Assistance Program.

The idea has been around for years for large employers, mostly, to provide easy ways for workers to get help with, usually, counseling-related matters.

But it’s a new deal for Hughes County’s employees.

The five-member Commission has been discussing it for several months. Often the Commissioners make a point of pointing out how hard-working the county’s employees are, and the good service they provide. It only makes sense, they have said, to provide more ways for any employees with difficulties to have an easy way to seek help without a lot of fuss and paperwork.

On Monday, the County Commission hooked up by speaker phone with Tim Heerts and Rick Carlson, two EAP consultants who work for Avera Health Systems based in Sioux Falls, of which Avera St. Mary’s in Pierre is a part.

Both Heerts and Carlson are substance abuse professionals — as in helping those with substance abuse — and other certified counseling-related bona fides, including degrees from Sioux Falls Seminary, which goes along with the faith-based mission of Avera’s Catholic character.

Heerts and Carlson told the Commission that the EAP can give employees a place to go if they are looking for help with stress, family or workplace issues, addiction problems, or financial or legal advice, such as paying bills or getting a will written.

A new offering in 2020 is the Critical Incident Stress Management and Traumatic Event Response, Carlson and Heerts told the Commission. It might be a way for county managers to handle, say, the heart attack of an employee who dies at work, or accidents or natural disasters that result in injury or death, or just the trauma of employees being dismissed or “downsized.”

Commissioners questioned Carlson and Heertz about whether the services would be available to employees right here in Pierre and not require traveling to “Rapid or Sioux Falls,” Commissioner Norm Weaver said.

They have several professionals already in Pierre who are ready to take part in the county’s EAP, if the Commission goes that way, Carlson and Heerts said.

But often, it’s the wish of an employee to seek counseling or addiction treatment not in their hometown, but maybe in Rapid City or Sioux Falls, because they don’t want the news getting out that they need help, Carlson and Heerts said.

Commission Chair Roger Inman said he liked that idea. “If someone calls up, ‘I really have a problem but I don’t want to see a counselor.’ You know Pierre is small and you can take a trip to Sioux Falls or Rapid City.”

Inman said he also sees the value of help dealing with critical incidents. “I can see where the sheriff could use that critical incident, with some of the happenings at the jail.”

Hughes County Sheriff Darin Johnson nodded sharply: “I have one (situation) we would be using it right now.” Johnson says he’s pretty sure a lot of his employees at the jail would be in favor of an EAP.

What the Commissioners said what they like a lot about the Avera contract proposal is that it appears pretty affordable.

They have been told by Capital Area Counseling experts in Pierre that any helping sessions should start out with at least five sessions, the Commissioners said.

Connie Hohn, new to the Commission the past year, moved to authorize Inman to sign a contract with Avera for one year of the “five-session” option for an EAP, at a flat rate of $2.70 per employee per month. Using an estimate of the county’s employee total being 90, that would amount to $2,916 per year to the county, Hohn said. That amount would start paying for itself after only 19 sessions from any few employees, she said.

The actual number of county employees varies month to month, and was at 94 at the latest county, Finance Officer Jane Naylor said.

The costs after the first sessions will go up, perhaps covered by health insurance or other means, Heerts and Carlson said.

For the new Critical Incident management help, after the first response, covered by the flat rate, there would be added costs of $235 per hour or $350 per hour, depending how fast the added service is needed.

The Commission said they had to decide this month on whether to try out Avera’s EAP for 2020.

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