Employees facing conflicts in their private lives sometimes become problems at work, sabotaging productivity and creating headaches for supervisors, fellow staffers and themselves.

That in mind, Prosper Waco has created the Waco Employer Resource Network, a local version of a national cause championing the needs of low-income workers who may face legal, transportation or child care issues, or may simply need someone to serve as a sounding board.

The goal is keeping people on the job, since it costs $8,000 to replace one person making $8 an hour, said Katy Schulz, who serves as liaison between the newly minted network and local businesses.

A formal kickoff for the Waco Employer Resource Network unfolded Wednesday at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce headquarters downtown, where about 50 business people and representatives of social service agencies heard a report on what the initiative has to offer employers and their workforce.

A $390,000 grant from the city of Waco will allow the program to offer services free of charge for three years, after which officials hope local businesses see the program as an asset and worthy of private funding, Schulz said in an interview.

“Our hope is that employees can continue supporting their families and are prevented from being pushed down further into poverty,” the network’s “success coach,” Spike Burt said.

Since the program started informally late last year, Burt, 35, has visited 14 local employers, including the Cargill poultry-processing plant, the Mars candymaking facility, and Waco Independent School District.

“At my facility, Spike was called in to see an employee who wanted to cash-out his retirement to pay rent,” Cargill human resources director Daniel Bennight said.

Bennight, who attended Wednesday’s kickoff, said the new initiative’s rapid response and resources to find rental assistance in a pinch allowed the employee to remain on the payroll.

Burt said his experience includes counseling drug addicts, performing pastoral duties and working with social service agencies.

Many companies, especially larger ones, provide emergency assistance or counseling to employees, Burt said. But staffers often fear the programs and prefer to air their problems to someone without direct ties to their employers, he said.

The network’s interactions will be confidential and on a one-on-one basis, he said.

Buddy Edwards, executive director of Caritas of Waco, which offers services including a food pantry and assistance with utility payments, said the agency is providing Burt with office space paid for by the $390,000 city grant.

“When crises arise that impact an individual’s ability to focus on the job, or which create job absences, WERN will come up with a plan of action to remove the impediments,” Edwards said. “WERN will work directly with local businesses, and will mobilize our partners.”

Groups involved in the program include the Salvation Army, Neighborworks Waco, Caritas, the Christian Women’s Job Corps, the Christian Men’s Job Corps, Compassion Ministries, Mission Waco, the Economic Opportunity Advancement Corp., the Texas Workforce Commission, MHMR of Central Texas, and the Cenikor Foundation, among others.

“It will very much be owned and managed and driven by employers,” Schulz said. “They will decide if it is worthwhile.”

Keri White, supervisor of personnel services for Waco ISD, said the district applauds the initiative.

“We are proud to have this resource and love the concept of a success coach,” White said. “Spike is wonderful, and it’s great that those taking part can remain anonymous.”

Waco businessman Bill Clifton, a founding director of Prosper Waco and an advocate of the new network, said calls for such a program grew from a meeting in recent years at Baylor University that attracted about 200 people.

“These worker bees have a servant’s heart. They want to help. But until something gets organized, nothing gets done,” Clifton said after Wednesday’s meeting. “We have to move from talking the talk to walking the walk, and we believe WERN offers a way of measuring results. We can determine if this is or is not an effective solution.”

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