Robert Schell skipped out of work early at U.S. Bank's headquarters in downtown Minneapolis last week to direct Final Four visitors through the skyway and offer suggestions on where to get a tasty Jucy Lucy.

A few blocks away, Natasha Farhat left behind her work at Medica to dish up meals at a homeless shelter.

And both were getting paid by their companies to do it.

More and more, workplaces across the country are expanding paid time off (PTO) so that employees can spend time volunteering. In 2018, 24 percent of companies nationwide said they offered paid time off for volunteering, up from 16 percent in 2014, according to a human resources study.

In Minnesota, the benefit is being offered by companies of all sizes — from Medica, which has offered its 1,500 Minnesota workers two paid volunteer days the past six years, to St. Paul-based Sunrise Banks, which launched a five-day paid volunteer program two years ago for its 230 full-time employees. This year, Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank is the latest company to expand the benefit, giving all 74,000 employees two PTO days to volunteer.

"Most innovative companies I know are adopting some sort of volunteer time off program," said Carrie Patton, who serves on the board of the Twin Cities Society for Human Resource Management and works in human resources for the real estate firm, Cushman & Wakefield. "It's becoming more common ... employees really want to feel connected to something bigger in their personal lives."

Minnesotans have long been leaders when it comes to volunteering — the state ranks No. 2 behind Utah and just ahead of Wisconsin for volunteer rates, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers national service programs.

That "Minnesota Nice" spirit has been even more visible in recent days as 2,000 volunteers help visitors attending the Final Four basketball championship at U.S. Bank Stadium. Last year, about 10,000 Minnesotans stepped up to be local ambassadors when the state hosted the Super Bowl.

Even though Schell was busy at work last Thursday at U.S. Bank, he was able to leave early to put in a half day directing Final Four volunteers while on the company clock. By afternoon, Farhat was doing the same, using Medica's volunteer time off to serve meals at People Serving People, a shelter in Minneapolis.

"It just fills me up," she said. "It's the best part of my day."

Beyond fundraisers

Many workplaces sponsor a variety of volunteer efforts — from holding fundraisers to organizing staff volunteer events. But paying employees to take time off to volunteer, often called VTO, comes as workers seek more flexibility on the job.

Three years ago, Code42, a company that employs 470 people, started offering workers two paid days a year to volunteer. In the east metro, 3M has offered its 93,000 employees volunteer paid time off for decades. At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, full-time employees get 20 hours a year in volunteer paid time off, a benefit that has been offered since 2003. And at Medtronic, workers get five days of paid leave a year to volunteer.

"It was truly a game changer for me to do something bigger than myself," said Stephanie Joranson, a Medtronic employee who's used her time off to volunteer in Haiti, bringing water to residents and visiting children in orphanages.

With 40 hours of paid volunteer time, Melodie Carlson was able to leave her job as chief operating officer at Sunrise Banks last week to chaperone her 9-year-old daughter on a field trip to the Como Zoo. She's also used those hours to pack meals at a food bank and serve on a nonprofit board.

"We're not just making money for our owners, we're helping our community too," she said. "It becomes a big part of our beliefs and mission."

Thoa Nguyen, a business planner at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has also used VTO to serve on the board of a Bloomington nonprofit, which she said helps her develop leadership skills.

"It works both ways," she said of the benefit.

Finding a 'passion project'

Corporate leaders say employees increasingly want employers to take a stand on social issues and be involved in the community. And with a tightening job market and low unemployment, adding such benefits can attract employees and boost retention.

"People can go anywhere these days, so companies have to offer something reflective of their culture and having people want to stay," Patton said. "Why wouldn't you [offer it]? It's a small benefit that really has a huge gain. It's an engagement technique, it's a retention technique, it sets yourself apart from other organizations ... and it's just the right thing to do."

At Cushman & Wakefield, which employs 500 people in the metro, employees have long received two paid days a year to volunteer, but the activity had to fit a criteria. Now, Patton said, employees can use the time for any cause.

"It's none of our business to dictate what employees are passionate about," she added.

As with vacation days, some workers may not use all their volunteer paid time off. But others, like Jenny Lanoue-Glerum of Moose Lake, Minn., have no problem making time to volunteer.

During the summer, the registered nurse swaps the paperwork at her job at Medica, the Minnetonka-based health plan company, to hand out band-aids and comfort kids while volunteering as a nurse at a youth camp.

"It's a great asset," she said of the paid time off.

In Blaine, U.S. Bank branch manager Jennifer Broden has used her paid volunteer hours to read at her child's day care and teach financial literacy to students.

"We can choose to be involved in the passion project of our choice," Broden said. "It's become an even more embedded part of our culture."