Catherine “Ree” Reeves Harper – Lyons HR
Catherine “Ree” Reeves Harper admits she works in an area few have heard about—even herself initially—but it’s one that can make a crucial difference for employers, especially in a pandemic.
She’s talking about PEOs—or professional employer organizations. As the vice president of human resources and general counsel of Lyons HR, Harper says a PEO, such as Lyons, offers small- to medium-sized businesses a spectrum of human resource services, including payroll and benefits administration.
These tasks gained significance in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis when many businesses were required to close or reduce operations and employees were told to quarantine at home. In the rush of small businesses scrambling to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans, Lyons was there to help.
With headquarters in Alabama, the Lyons team gathered the required information for its clients before the formal application process even started, notes Harper. For many of those business owners, the loan proceeds were the difference between closing the doors or surviving the months to follow.
“Our team’s dedication and hard work were clearly impactful and made a difference,” Harper says. “Having a client thank you for doing something they didn’t even know they needed makes the effort worthwhile.”
Necessity, the mother of invention
Truth be told, Lyons wasn’t aware of the power of a PEO when it opened in 1995. Originally an employee staffing services company, the need to develop outsourced HR services came in 2006, at which time it became a PEO. Now Lyons serves clients and their employees in 46 states.
“Our staffing clients demonstrated the need for additional outsourced human resources services, so our Founder and Chairman Bill Lyons built a business model around that need,” Harper says. “Our clients can focus on their core business while we assist with the administerial duties associated with being an employer.”
An added benefit for small companies working with a PEO is that they can access group discounts for employee benefits and insurance by being part of the larger pool of employees—something that may help them recruit better candidates and improve business performance. A small business might miss out on the best candidates for its workforce because competitors offer fringe benefits.
“Better candidates mean a better workforce, which leads to efficiency, productivity and overall business performance,” she says.
Over the years, Lyons improved its performance by upgrading its technology and going digital. While that was a boon before COVID-19, when the pandemic hit it allowed the business to safely continue to conduct electronic onboarding of employees, assist clients with Paycheck Protection Program loan applications and navigate new and uncertain legislation, Harper explains.
Like many businesses, Lyons was grappling with the crisis on two fronts. Internally, it was focusing on protecting the safety and health of its 75 employees and their families. Externally, it was helping clients who were facing shutdowns and having to lay off employees, which, in turn, would impact Lyons.
Getting a quick handle on unfolding legislation, Lyons helped ready clients to navigate employee paid leave made available under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act, which paved the way for Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“We knew what information our clients needed before they needed it,” Harper says.
Even so, it was still a high-stress endeavor. The entire Lyons’ team—members from every department, including the executive team—worked with clients and their accountants and lenders, to get the reports together before the Paycheck Protection Program loan application process started.
“It was fast and furious, but there was a wave of gratitude,” she says. “We never missed a service delivery. That’s tenacity.”
Meant to be
About her role at Lyons, Harper says it “seemed like it was made for me.”
Equipped with an accounting degree from Auburn University Harbert College of Business in 1990 and a JD from the Birmingham School of Law in 1996, Harper was working as an attorney at a small defense firm in Birmingham in early 2018 when she got a call from a recruiter.
“It was a strange coincidence, because I was researching ideas for the expansion of the firm’s labor and employment practice and had just come across the topic of PEOs,” she recalls. “An employer may engage an HR consultant and an attorney, but it’s uncommon to have both under one roof.”
For Harper, it merged her many interests and experiences. Those include handling employment issues and HR, as well as being a small business owner. It also let her help helping people and work in a fast-paced environment—two things close to her heart.
She joined Lyons as the vice president of corporate human resources, handling internal HR and employee relations needs for its PEO and staffing divisions. When the staffing division was divested in late 2018, Harper began developing a legal department. In time, she became involved in advocacy work with the National Association of PEOs—NAPEO—serving on several committees and the legal advisory council.
These committees tackle issues regarding federal and state laws and regulations that affect employee benefits, workers’ compensation and other labor-related issues. And although PEOs first got started in the late ‘60s, regulation still varies between states.
“We’re addressing the issues standing in the way of employers and their businesses,” Harper says. “It’s our role to stay involved with federal agencies and lawmakers to advocate for employers.”
With that mission in mind, nothing’s more satisfying to her than working with her team to help business owners create and save jobs.
“It’s a people business, both employers and employees,” Harper adds. “We’re fighting for both.”
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