As Monroe County sought ways to curtail ongoing staffing issues at Monroe Community Hospital last year, County Executive Adam Bello wanted to hear directly from employees.
The input from one woman hit home.
“She said, ‘I can work across the street at Costco and make more than I make here,’” Bello said. “And she was right. She could make more across the street — with probably less responsibility.”
The conversation prompted action. Bello and county leaders worked to boost minimum wage for county employees to $15 by Jan. 1, 2022.
The pay bump aligned with efforts by the nonprofit Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), which launched a campaign in February 2021 to have minimum wage rise to $15 for at least 10,000 area residents.
A host of organizations heeded the call to action, and more than 11,000 employees saw the impact in their paychecks.
“We did it because it was the right thing to do,” said Bob Bourg, vice president of human resources at St. Ann’s Community. “We genuinely believe we need to take care of our team members so they can take care of the people they care for.”
For various agencies within county government, it meant 285 employees saw hikes to $15. Some had been in the $12 range. But other workers also saw an increase in order to maintain a properly aligned pay scale. The total cost to the county: around $1.1 million for the year.
But it’s a necessary expense, Bello said. The higher adjusted pay scale “better reflects the value of employees and sets and an example to the community as a leader, as one of the largest employers.”
“And it helps us stabilize the work force, it helps to reduce turnover,” he added.
The same is true at Heritage Christian Services, a human service agency that employs 3,300. The nonprofit organization implemented a $15 minimum wage early in 2021 and the impact is noticeable.
“Our retention is stable and we’re proud that our retention rate exceeds the state and national rates for direct support professionals,” president and CEO Marisa Geitner said.
As an organization providing services for community members with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Heritage Christian receives reimbursement from the state. But the reimbursement rates are tied to state minimum wage guidelines, so bumping worker pay would be an additional cost to the organization.
“These are not minimum wage jobs,” Geitner said, “and yet that is what our (reimbursement) rates are based upon.”
Still, ensuring better pay for half of the 3,300 employees was a necessity. Employees needed the raise.
“Women make up over 90 percent of caring positions, and 77 percent are women of color,” Geitner said. “So, we know exactly who we’re helping when we move that wage scale.
“We feel we have an obligation to get working professionals to a better level of self-sufficiency. These are hard-working, very caring professionals.”
Leadership at St. Ann’s Community, a senior housing and health services provider, knew they also needed to find a way to help increase the pay for their valued employees.
When St. Ann’s pushed minimum wage to $15, around 450 front-line employees — including nursing personnel, dining staff and environmental services workers — saw more money in their paycheck.
The value of those employees was accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when residents were isolated from loved ones due to health concerns.
“The people at St. Ann’s were doing such amazing work,” said Bob Bourg, vice president of human resources at St. Ann’s. “Families couldn’t enter the facility, so in addition to being caregivers, our employees acted as family members. They were really the lifeline to the elders that live at St. Ann’s.”
St. Ann’s is doing more than just providing better wages, however. For employees with young children, there is a program where diapers can be purchased at a 90-95 percent discount.
The organization pays a year-end appreciation bonus of up to $1,000 based on hours worked. For employees taking college courses to advance their careers, there is a tuition assistance program. The organization also is working to create a transportation plan to offset commuting costs.
And because of work demands in the health care and senior living industries, it’s not always possible for employees to use all accrued vacation and personal time. Rather than a use-it-or-lose-it policy, they now can be paid for some of that unused time.
The region’s largest employer, the University of Rochester, also believed raising its minimum wage to $15 needed to be done. But ideally it is only a start, according to Peter Robinson, vice president for government and community relations for the university.
“This was something we willingly did and it’s probably not the end,” Robinson said. “We need to do more moving forward. It’s about opportunity for growth and advancement.”
Between academics, University of Rochester Medical Center and affiliated health care facilities in the area, UR has 33,000 workers, Robinson said.
“We certainly weren’t the first (to move to $15), but as the largest employer in Upstate New York, making the decision probably had a positive effect on the rest of the community coming on board,” he said.
With more than 2,000 employees benefiting from the adjusted pay scale, the balance sheet also was impacted.
“The revenues to cover those costs were a little hard to come by,” Robinson said. “Because of the size of our institution, the dollar numbers became big.”
Raising rates charged for school and medical care wasn’t necessarily an option. Students are always concerned about tuition costs, and contracts with insurance providers limit reimbursement. Nonetheless, the added payroll expense was easily justifiable.
“The kind of experience and quality of care that we want to provide is tied to our employees, so employee satisfaction and well-being is critical to our success,” Robinson said.
Charter Communications, the parent company of cable, internet and phone services provider Spectrum, set a much higher bar for minimum wage. The $15 level was set in 2018, and already the company has a new minimum of $20 an hour. Spectrum employs around 2,100 in the Rochester area.
“Since the beginning of the year, we have received thousands of applications (nationwide) as our highly skilled employees deliver connectivity and entertainment to more than 32 million customers (in 41 states),” Charter/Spectrum spokesperson Heidi Vandenbrouch said in an email.
The hike in pay has even brought employees back to Charter/Spectrum. In 2021, more than 2,000 employees returned to locations across the country after leaving the company for other jobs, she said.
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