Workers build charity to help one another

The James Chicago's Hemmings Fund is endowed by employees, for employees, and is a fine example of goodwill in the workplace

The James employee-funded charity

Scott Copeland, 28, has worked at The James Chicago for 7 years and is responsible for the employee-funded program to help employees having difficulties. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune / July 18, 2013)

I spend most of my days toiling in the fields of workplace discontent, hoisting the yoke of America's office imbroglios, looking up fancy words and praying I don't run out of hyperbolic ways to describe my job.

But this week I take a break from the fancy words and the problems that need fixing to share a simple story of a workplace where something good is happening.

In 2009, a fire destroyed Scott Copeland's Chicago apartment. His co-workers at The James Chicago hotel held a fundraiser to help him get back on his feet.

Around the same time, a beloved employee of the hotel's restaurant was diagnosed with cancer. Again, employees hotelwide came together to raise money and help the man, Jeff Hemmings, with his medical bills.

Copeland was finishing a yearlong training program the company runs. For his final project, he proposed creating an employee-funded charity that makes money available to workers hit by costly medical or family emergencies.

Basically, instead of passing the hat every time a colleague at The James needs support, there would be a fund that's always around. Employees who wanted to participate could contribute any amount per month, from $1 up, money that could be deducted from their paychecks.

"Our goal was to get a lot of people to donate a little bit of money, and that large amount of people adds up," said Copeland, the hotel's lobby coordinator. "It shows we're all here to help each other out. We work side by side every day of the week. When you have something go wrong that you didn't expect, you know there's something that can help take that burden off."

Hotel officials were quick to embrace Copeland's concept and offered to facilitate the payroll deductions and set up an account for the fund. A committee with representatives from each hotel department makes decisions when requests for assistance come in, requests that can be anonymous.

"Sometimes people are embarrassed and don't want to take action," Copeland said. "This is a way people can ask without feeling embarrassed."

Hemmings, the restaurant employee, died in 2010. Copeland and others thought it appropriate that their in-house charity be called The Hemmings Fund.

Nearly 50 of the hotel's 275 employees make regular contributions, with many others pitching in as they can throughout the year. The fund totals about $12,000. You don't have to contribute to apply for help, and people who do contribute can stop at any time.

The fund has helped employees buy plane tickets to visit sick relatives, cover medical expenses and deal with an array of other day-to-day tragedies.

LaTrice Thompson, who works in the hotel's reservations department, received help a few months ago when she faced some problems at home. (I didn't ask her to be more specific, seeing no need to pry.)

"It's difficult to ask for help," she said. "As a person, you might be proud, and you don't want to take assistance. I thought about it long and hard before I came to a decision, but I was so glad it was available. It really helped me out."

She said just knowing the fund is there — whether she needs it or not — has strengthened her bond with co-workers and her commitment to the company.

"When you think about it, you know that the people you work with really care, because they give to this fund and they do it willingly," she said. "It just makes it a better place to work knowing that everyone cares for each other."

Claudia Parulo, regional director of human resources for The James, said the concept has spread to the company's Miami location. She said there was no hesitation in supporting the employee-driven idea, and it has built "a consensus of safety and belonging" among the hotel's Chicago workforce.

"Sometimes it's not just what you give somebody, but more the atmosphere that you create," Parulo said. "This is not just a place where you come and do your deeds, it's a place where you can be a human."

That's music to my ears.

A concept like this may not be applicable to every workplace, but it's an awfully nice idea. I share it with the hope that it gets workers and managers thinking about what positive, pragmatic steps they can take to make life in their workplaces better.

Too often we trudge along, focusing on the bad things about work and not looking for ways to enhance the good. That's really all that happened at The James. Copeland saw the way workers would rally around a colleague in need and figured out how to amplify that goodwill and make it last.

Kudos to him, to the employees there who look out for one another and to the company for not turning its nose up at a sensible, employee-driven idea.

It helps us remember that there's good in the world, and in the workplace.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

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