What is the role of benefits programs in supporting Fort McMurray victims?

As residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., continue to deal with the fallout from the recent wildfires that have ravaged the city, organizations like Morneau Shepell are boosting employee assistance programs in the area.

The company is launching a Fort McMurray crisis line in addition to deploying trauma counsellors to the area. It’s also setting up mobile counselling units in co-ordination with select evacuation centres in Alberta. “People across our organization want to help those affected by the wildfires and are contributing however they can,” said Alan Torrie, president and chief executive officer of Morneau Shepell.

With lives disrupted and many people in crisis, employers have a significant role to play in supporting them. “You want to make sure that you know where [your employees] are and you also want to make sure that they have access to support services such as employee assistance programs,” says Tiina Liivet, vice-president of health and benefits at Accompass.

Read: What’s the value of an employee assistance program?

Outside of direct counselling, employee assistance programs can often include many other services, says Melanie Jeannotte, Arthur J. Gallagher Canada’s area president for Alberta, referring to things such as concierge services to provide both support and research. In the case of the Fort McMurray fire, parents can get access to or referrals to local school and childcare programs, she notes. “There’s a lot inside of the EAPs that you may not see at first blush,” says Jeannotte.

Read: Catastrophic illness coverage needed to address outdated benefits plans

There are also concerns that go beyond employee assistance programs. With people having had to evacuate quickly, many will need to deal quickly with issues like medical needs, according to Liivet.

“They’re going to need co-operation and support from their insurance carriers to make sure that those things can get paid for and that the carrier isn’t invoking their normal frequency limit and saying, ‘Well, you just received a 90-day supply for your cholesterol medication three weeks ago. We’re not going to pay for you to refill it now.'”

In cases where people have lost property, they’ll need to reconsider their financial situation, says Phil Rivard, vice-president at The Segal Group. While Rivard makes it clear the issue will fall largely on individuals and their insurers rather than employers, Jeannotte says employer-provided financial education or counselling could be helpful to employees.

Read: Employers to focus on financial well-being in 2016

On the subject of financial support, the Alberta Pension Services Corporation, which provides pension-related services to more than 342,000 employees and pensioners across the province, is already reaching out to its members and retirees in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area.

In a letter, Karen Adams, president and chief executive officer of the Alberta Pension Services Corporation, explained the steps it has taken. “A vast majority of our existing pensioners are paid via direct deposit, however there are instances where a handful of clients still receive a paper cheque,” she said.

“APS has determined which pensioners in the Fort McMurray area are paid via paper cheque, and has been attempting to contact these individuals to arrange alternate payment arrangements. APS will make every effort to ensure our members have timely access to their funds, whether this means driving a cheque out to them, taking it to a bank for deposit into a member’s account, or having it couriered to them.”

Editor’s note: The information from the Alberta Pension Services Corporation was added to the story on May 11, 3:25pm.