We’ve all seen health news articles claiming people who volunteer live longer. But health news articles say a lot of things. Does volunteering really lower stress and make people happy? Yes.
A 2013 Harvard health blog was more specific, stating people who volunteer “feel more socially connected, thus warding off loneliness and depression.” The author went on to say volunteers have “better physical health — including lower blood pressure and a longer life span.” Volunteering goes hand in hand with public service. Both volunteering and public service can give individuals a sense of purpose, create personal satisfaction and improve community.
Volunteer Time Off (VTO) is a benefit that is climbing in popularity among employers and employees. VTO provides employees with paid days for volunteering in the community. According to a 2018 employee benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), only 24 percent of companies offer VTO. Employers are finding that volunteering often aligns with the organization’s values, and it allows employees to come back to work refreshed and engaged.
Applicants and employees find that an organization with volunteer time off has values that align with their own values and that the organization’s purpose is in alignment with their personal sense of purpose. Millennials in particular value volunteerism — it affects their decision to apply for, accept and remain in a position. According to the 2017 Millennial Impact Report published by the Case Foundation, “Millennials strive for a world in which conditions are better than they are today and will continue to get better for everyone.”
Volunteer Time Off programs work well in the private sector, but what about the public sector? One concern of public entities in offering VTO may be laws prohibiting public entities from giving “gifts” to private entities without adequate consideration.
Secondly, public entities need to consider whether it will limit how employees can spend this volunteer time and ensure that any limitations are consistent with the First Amendment. Before implementing any VTO program, entities should consult with their legal counsel to ensure they can design a program that does not run afoul of such laws.
The City of Aurora, Colo. launched its employee volunteer program in August 2016, allowing full-time employees eight hours of paid volunteer time off and part-time employees four hours. Similarly, the City of Mooresville, N.C., began its program in September 2016, granting 16 hours VTO per year with a long list of approved agencies and organizations where employees may volunteer their time. Fairfax County in Virginia also provides “Volunteer Activity Leave” offering its full-time employees 16 hours each year to “support the neighborhoods in which employees live and work to include educational and charitable institutions, religious/faith-based and community service entities.”
What are some of the items to consider when creating a VTO program?
- Work with your County Attorney’s Office to outline any legal constraints you will be working within when designing the program.
- Who will be eligible? Regular employees? Benefit-eligible employees? Will employees have to be employed one year to be eligible for the time? Be employed six months?
- When will the hours be available? On a calendar year? A fiscal year? Will the hours be accrued or allotted in a bank? Does your payroll system have a code that can track the hours?
- How many hours of VTO will employees receive? Do employees have to take the time in certain increments? What is the cost of the lost productivity?
- How will employees request the benefit and how will it be approved? Organizations often have the supervisor approve the time to ensure it does not impact operational coverage or business operations. Are employees required to avoid peak work periods?
Other important items to consider include: VTO is paid leave, so employees who get injured participating while taking VTO are not on work time and are not covered by workers’ compensation. VTO hours do not usually carry over from year to year. VTO is usually paid at a worker’s base salary. Employees do not receive travel time when reporting to and from the volunteering site. Is the employee required to give a contact phone number in case the employee’s VTO service needs to be confirmed?
Be prepared for eligibility questions. Will a VTO eligible employee be able to use the time for a parent/teacher conference or meeting at their child’s school? Will they be able to use the time to coach a youth team? Volunteer at their child’s school? Attend a school field trip? Will all eligible agencies need to be a 501(c)3?
Whether an employee’s passion is hunger, literacy, youth, seniors, homelessness or housing, there is a partner agency in your community starving for volunteers. Employees may individually volunteer, volunteer as team-building or create a team of volunteers across the organization.
Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” If volunteering really helps individuals live longer lives, then adding a VTO program to your total compensation package gives employees the benefit of longer life. And that is a great recruitment and retention tool.