Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
In these difficult economic times, as public and private enterprises struggle to make ends meet, employees are severely impacted by decisions that these organizations have to make in order to continue to provide whatever limited services they can.
As school transportation budgets are cut or corporate profits diminish, employees may not be able to keep up with their own costs of living, as there often are no pay raises to be had in this environment.
Worse yet are the situations so many employees experience with cuts in their take-home pay due to such factors as decreased hourly wages, furlough days, lessened work hours, fewer field trips and activity trips, higher out-of-pocket expenses for medical insurance and other benefits (many of which have also been curtailed or eliminated), forced pay into pension plans, or being required to move their retirement money into risky stock accounts (with load charges) rather than safer state-run retirement programs (with no load charges). The list goes on.
Many organizations have a freeze on the hiring of new employees, which leaves existing employees overworked and exhausted while attempting to, and being demanded to, do the work of two or more employees.
As a result of these factors, employees can be left living with great stress in their personal lives and demoralization at work. A sense of depletion sets in as they, like the businesses they work for, attempt to do more with less, both on the job and with their families.
Workers are often in a state of shock. They may perform in a rote manner, become apathetic, or display a sense of disaffection or dismay. They live from paycheck to paycheck — “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Anxiety and depression often accompanies these reactions.
Administrators and transportation support staff suffer the same effects as they experience personnel cuts, furloughs and salary decreases. These changes cause workers to “not want to do anything extra.”
There has been much written about how this is exactly the time for workers to renew their commitments to the work site in order to be seen as an integral part of the organization and maintain their job status. And while this is true, it is often difficult to muster the energies needed to start, or even to maintain, a positive level of energy in light of the prevailing circumstances.
The questions we often ask ourselves are: How do I rise, even a little, above this? How do I motivate myself, my colleagues and my staff to get involved again?
How about trying your hand at an event that confronts these issues head-on in a positive and productive manner? An event that fuels itself by fostering a climate of hope and help as well as appreciation.
An employee resource and appreciation fair may be the medicine your organization needs. It takes a little time and energy, but the cooperation and camaraderie will do much to raise the spirits of your workforce, and provide help for your employees.
What is it?
An employee resource and appreciation fair is an event sponsored by your school district to bring together many of your district’s specialized departments and your community’s agencies in order to assist employees with the numerous difficulties that they may be facing as a result of these turbulent economic times.
An employee resource and appreciation fair offers information and helps to address familial concerns as well as financial, medical, housing and myriad other problems that people face.
Many employees are not aware of what help is available through the school district as well as in the community. Oftentimes, employees are afraid to ask for help when it is available, or they feel that help is for “someone else, not for me.”
The fair becomes an effective and non-threatening venue to bring help directly to employees. They can talk with an agency representative right then and there, sign up for assistance right away or simply “grab a pamphlet and go” (hopefully to call for information or help at a later time).
It is also an opportunity to express to staff how much they are appreciated for the sacrifices they have made and endured during these tough times, and to demonstrate this by providing a supportive, entertaining and fun day for them and their families.
Not a costly affair
The next question you will probably ask is: What will it cost me?
The answer is: It can, with some creativity, cost virtually nothing.
We at Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ department of transportation have held several employee resource and appreciation fairs. We were able to operate these events with minimal cost to the school district.
We utilized revenues generated from the operation of vending machines to provide lunches for employees and their families (other options for this are detailed later in this article), and local as well as national vendors donated money or gave items for door prizes. Our local union, AFSCME, arranged for children’s entertainment: clowns, face painting and a bounce house.
The fair was held at a local high school on a teachers’ work day so that it had no impact on students and the district.
Choose your involvement
You will also probably wonder: How much time will it take to put it together? Because you, as well as everyone else you know, are already strapped for time.
Your involvement will be up to you and those you choose to include in this endeavor. Put in as much or as little effort as you feel you can afford.
The easiest way to get started is to form teams, enlisting other department staff and employees, and plan anywhere from four to six months in advance to minimize stress points.
Once you have recruited various department heads and staff members, arrange to meet to set up teams in accordance with each person’s interests. Everyone gets excited when they like what they are doing, and the event seems to take off on its own.
If you have a small transportation department, you may want to pair up with another district, or with your custodial and/or cafeteria departments, and even get your teachers involved. Certainly everyone in your district and neighboring districts could benefit from learning more about the resources that are available to them.
We invited staff from our employee assistance program, wellness program, adult education department and exceptional student education department. They were instrumental in contacting teachers, local experts and outside agencies that routinely assist our employees and the community at large. These agencies and individuals were invited to set up a booth and were encouraged to bring free materials to give out — which employees always enjoy receiving.
Representatives from various community agencies were contacted and asked to participate in the event. These included our credit union, the Red Cross, Section 8 housing, the United Way, our local health department, walk-in clinics, blood donor agencies, counseling agencies, food stamp representatives, the Community Action Agency, debt settlement programs and mortgage settlement programs.
A second team worked with the principal of the selected high school to have the custodians help with the setup and the cafeteria workers assist with preparing lunches. If you do not have vending machines to underwrite the cost of lunches — or vendors who are able to donate — consider making arrangements for the district to provide hot dogs, chips and sodas at a cost to employees and their families who wish to eat during the event.
This second team also planned for the arrangement of tables for informational booths, the schedule for display tables to be ready on time for the start of the fair, the setup of the band’s stage area, meeting with the band’s contact people to review their needs for the staging area, parking for the entertainers, the setup of microphones and amplifiers, and the provisions for the cleanup afterward.
Scheduling the day
The event was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. This gave our staff and the agencies enough time to set up the tables and other areas between 8 and 10 a.m. The fair was scheduled to close down by 4 p.m.
Agencies and providers were assigned areas in the cafeteria with tables and chairs for their information booths. Since it was a high school, the cafeteria was fairly large, and we were able to set up the agencies’ tables on one end and still leave the other side for eating.
Another team worked on the promotional side of the event, ensuring that flyers were made and employees were notified of the event. District staff and board members received personal invitations. Local media were contacted to cover the event.
Those interested in entertainment worked on recruiting local talent for the event. They contacted the high schools for bands, and they put out the word to sign up local voluntary talent.
When an entertainment schedule was completed, the team printed a program of the day’s activities to give to all employees as they arrived so they would know the times that the entertainers would be on stage. Many of the employees knew the local talent and were looking forward to seeing them perform on stage.
We chose an open-air area in the middle of the school, rather than the auditorium, for the entertainment. This allowed employees more freedom to mill around, dance and interact while the bands played. One of our staff members acted as the master of ceremonies.
Another team worked on soliciting the door prizes. They were able to secure donations from local and national vendors. These giveaways included gift certificates, flowers, automobile supplies, toy buses and T-shirts.
This team also worked with our local union, AFSCME, which contracted with a bounce-house company and arranged for other entertainment for the children.
We also needed a team that would take on the responsibility of being a welcoming committee. This group made sure that staff was outside to help families with parking, give directions to the cafeteria and greet everyone.
Employees received their entertainment programs and raffle tickets as they entered the school. Door prizes were given out in between the entertainment sets.
The most important reason for this type of event is to provide information, help and hopefully some relief for employees to be better able to cope with the various hardships that they face. But it is also a day of reprieve. It is a time to relax with co-workers and families, coming together to enjoy good family fun and entertainment — away from all of life’s immediate stresses.
If an event like this helps only one person, it is well worth it. However, bringing together many of the district’s and community’s players in one place for a unified purpose is in itself a great demonstration of help and hope, creating much goodwill and raising everyone’s spirits.
We may not be able to change the fiscal constraints we struggle under, yet we understand our employees’ needs for reassurance and assistance. This is one excellent and highly effective way for a district to provide that help.
Randy Mazie is an administrator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ department of transportation. He owns www.schoolbusmart.com, a website for school bus employee merchandise. Follow his blog at www.goneyellow.wordpress.com. Contact him at [email protected] to receive bimonthly newsletters or for any questions.
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