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These office dogs even have insurance: How Tampa Bay workplaces became pro-pet

A growing number of employers are offering pet perks to woo and retain their animal-loving workers.
American Staffordshire terrier, Blue, gets a kiss from owner Danea Coleman, at the Achieva Credit Union’s headquarters in Dunedin. Coleman, a member services advisor with the credit union, had just returned from a lunch break.
Published Feb. 19

DUNEDIN — It's almost like every day at the Achieva Credit Union headquarters is take-your-kid-to-work day — if your child is furry with four paws.

Blue, a 3-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, can snuggle up at Danea Coleman's feet as she talks with customers from the call center.

"He's so chill," the 25-year-old cooed. "He's just … gets spoiled all day."

Bruno, a mini-schnauzer, is small enough to take a quiet nap right on his owner's desk. Meanwhile, Frankie strolls the halls with the company's chief information officer before meeting up for a quick play break with his best work pal, a bull dog mix named Zydeco, at the company dog park on Virginia Street.

The local credit union might be one of the country's most dog-friendly workplaces. But it may be part of a vanguard.

Pet perks have become common in prominent companies such as Google and Amazon to attract employees and reduce in-office stresses. Now those perks are spreading across smaller workplaces in Florida and dog-friendly Tampa Bay.

Achieva's home of Dunedin has restaurants with special fare for canines and a mural of pooches that dubs the city "Dogedin." St. Petersburg has its popular Dog Bar. Tampa has a dog beach on the bay and both cities offer plentiful dog parks. So it may not be shocking pro-dog culture has wiggled its way into local workplaces.

Achieva takes the dog love a step further by offering employees optional pet medical insurance. What's notable is the company is hardly alone.

About 400 companies in Florida offer pet insurance through Nationwide, according to the pet insurer's president, Anthony Sharett. That's more than double — up 220 percent, to be exact — than it was five years ago.

Locally, Achieva Credit Union, Publix, Raymond James and WellCare all have pet insurance plans with Nationwide. The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce allows dogs at work, as does the nearby Big Sea marketing firm.

Nationwide has pet insurance deals with about 7,000 companies and associations, including half of all Fortune 500 companies, Sharett said. Often, Nationwide's clients are the ones with designated pet days or pet-friendly workplaces.

Sharett called Florida and Tampa Bay one of the company's biggest markets. Other hot spots?

"I'll put is this way," said Sharett, "where millennials are moving are good markets for us. They have the greatest percentage of pet ownership."

That means Chicago, Dallas and Charlotte all have a growing pet market. And those dog and pet owners are likely to be wooed by pet benefits, whether that be dog visits or insurance options.

"One of the things we see is that offering pet insurance helps increase workplace engagement," Sharett said.

Last year, Nationwide and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute published a study on the effects of a pet-friendly workplace. It found that 91 percent employees at pet-friendly companies — defined as offices that allow pet visits or offer pet insurance — felt fully engaged in their work, compared to 65 percent of workers at places without pet perks.

The survey of about 2,000 people also found a higher rate of pro-pet workplace employees felt their work was rewarding and that their company cared about their mental health compared to counterparts without the same pet benefits.

Achieva's culture around animals started slow about four years ago. During a stressful project, chief information officer Tara Murphy brought in her dog, Roman, to help employees decompress.

Soon, by demand, Roman was coming in more often. He walked into Murphy's office once with his own Achieva security ID badge.

"I still don't know who did that," Murphy said, laughing.

It was Murphy's rescue dog, Frankie, that cemented the office's pet culture the following year. Frankie was found bald and covered with scabs, abandoned in the woods in Hernando County, before Murphy adopted him.

"The whole office really rallied around him and his recovery," said Chelsey Wilson, a marketing manager who owns Zydeco.

Soon special "Frankie Fridays" became a policy that allowed employees to bring well-behaved pets to work with manager approval. Then came the creation of the dog park on a piece of land on the office property. The park, which is open to the community, just had a reopening earlier this month with upgrades following a partnership with the city of Dunedin.

Murphy said the pet insurance was a natural progression the company put in place about two years ago.

Kim Kato, the human resource specialist that works with Raymond James, said the financial services firm added pet insurance in 2012 to keep its benefit options robust. It has been popular among employees, who are able to score a better rate than if they sought pet insurance on their own, she said.

Nationwide doesn't require a company to subsidize the insurance. Rather, it offers preferred rates to companies, which work similarly to a group discount. The savings can be more than $70 a year, depending on plan selection and the age and health of the animal.

"We understand the value of large and small companies," Sharett said, "and we will evaluate all-size companies for the opportunity."

The average Florida customer who has pet insurance under the company company is paying about $24 a month to cover their dog and $15 for a cat. The company covers exotic animals, too. When Zydeco got a stomach bug, Wilson said the insurance helped her pay for vet bills.

The transition into becoming a pet-friendly workplace has been smooth because coworkers have self-regulated whether their pets can handle a day at the office.

At Big Sea, for example, there's a dog calendar so no one day is too pup-heavy. Wilson doesn't bring her dog on days when she knows she will have a lot of meetings.

Animals at work won't be the best fit for everyone — whether it's the type of work or a coworker with severe allergies. But Murphy said at Achieva and other companies, it brings employees closer together.

"Accidents happen, though," she admitted. "We have replaceable carpet squares for a reason."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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