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Pets at the office

MELVILLE, N.Y. — About a month ago, Alethea Immoor came home from work to find her cat, Cosi, was ailing. The 7-year-old, 30-pound tabby had an abscess on his chin that had burst, resulting in a bloody trail on the floor and blood on the couch in her apartment.

"It was terrifying," says Immoor, 33, who, like so many of us, sees her cat as her family. "I felt helpless."

She got an appointment with her veterinarian first thing the next morning. And then came her moment of truth: what to tell the boss?

Would it be a cover-up — a ploy to mask taking time off for pet care?

Immoor, a public relations assistant, expected that her boss, Ron Gold, president of Advertising Works Inc. in East Setauket, would be supportive, as his own dogs often "work" right along side of him. Not only did he tell her to take as much time as she needed — he also suggested she bring Cosi to work if she wanted to keep tabs on him.

Desk photos at the office routinely display the loving smiles of children and significant others, but these days we are also seeing shots of Buddy, Sparky and Little Miss Coco. These are what Charlotte Reed, author of soon-to-be-published "The Miss Fido Manners Complete Book of Dog Etiquette," calls our "fur kids."

And even as we're proud to display our affection and attachment to our non-human family members, we're also trying to figure out how to deal with their care and well-being. Employers are finding they're being called on to address matters related to Buster and Ginger, right along with child care and elder care, amid a focus on attracting new employees and retaining current ones in a tightening labor market.

What's at play here? For starters: demographic shifts that find both empty nesters and young workers showering considerable affection on their critters, says Roxanne Szczpkowski, director of work-life resources with ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee assistance program with clients worldwide. Her role is to help clients' employees wrestle with nonwork issues that might otherwise spill over to the workday.

The pet care portion of the business is small but one of the fastest growing, says Szczpkowski, with pet-related calls up an estimated 15 to 20 percent from last year.

Her group has offered such support as locating dog walking and pooper-scooper services; providing help sheets on pet illnesses such as kitty leukemia and renal failure; and providing information on pet funerals and bereavement support groups. And when employees are relocated overseas, her department handles the pet transportation and, when called for, quarantines. Recently it was called on to have the corpse of an employee's cat transported from Sweden home to New York for burial.

Szczpkowski, who has five dogs and a rabbit, says she's finding that some employers are "embracing pets in a whole different light ... understanding they are part of the family."

In that spirit, employers are showing signs of enhancing pet perks and accommodations. According to annual benefits research from the Society for Human Resource Management, 5 percent of employers responding to the survey last year offered pet health insurance, up from 2 percent in 2001.

Many are coming to understand, too, that productivity can dip when employee attention is focused on an ailing pet and that ill will can result when employees feel forced to lie and/or put on a happy face.

Immoor compares her experience with that of her sister, who started a new job on the same day she had to put her dog to sleep when she got home. The next day the boss gave what she felt was an obligatory "sorry to hear that." And she ended up leaving two months later, in part as a result of what she saw as an uncaring response.

Indeed, says Melville veterinarian Elizabette Cohen, a significant number of owners of her emergency patients say they've fabricated a story about an ailing aunt, uncle or child.

The human resource society's research also shows an increasing percentage of employers offering support programs for grief of all kinds, programs that in most cases would cover pet bereavement.

When employees call National EAP, a Ronkonkoma-based employee assistance program serving employers mostly in the Northeast, counselors treat pet grief "the same as we would any other grief/loss issue," says Michael Hack, chief executive.

He cited two recent examples: someone who was mourning the loss of a horse and another person going through a divorce who was experiencing stress over the custody question of a pet boxer.

Certainly the big tail-wagging job perk is the ability to bring pets to work, seen most often in smaller offices where bosses may work side by side with their own pets, as does Gold — he and his wife also breed "Labradoodles."

But pets don't seem to be making many inroads at the office; the human resources research shows that workplaces welcoming pets have remained fairly stable, at 4 percent, in the past five years.

Matthew Halpern, a partner in the Melville office of the law firm Jackson Lewis Llp, points to issues such as the potential for bites and scratches, other employees' and/or clients' allergies and phobias, and distractions. And then there is a need for a sense of professionalism among those who feel "I didn't sign up to work in a menagerie."

Still, it's easier these days to find some of those workplaces that do welcome Fifi or Butch. That's through a collaborative endeavor between job search engine www.SimplyHired.com and www.Dogster.com.

Bloomsbury Books' Orlando checks out customers on the top of a step. The 12 years-old store cat weighs about 18 pounds and lives in the store about 10 years. - Mail Tribune file photo