Systems pay just wages in line with Catholic social teaching

May 15, 2017


When she was applying for her position as a teacher's aide at the employee child care center at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center in Midlothian, Va., five months ago, Jennifer Poulston was really surprised when her human resources contact told her that her hourly wage would be $11.

Teacher's aide Jennifer Poulston makes cardboard binoculars with children at the child care center at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center in Midlothian, Va. As an employee of a Bon Secours Health System, she benefits from a just wage policy.

It is common for child care positions to pay just slightly above minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour in Virginia. But, Bon Secours Health System of Marriottsville, Md., is among several Catholic health systems that have a formal just wage policy. According to a system white paper on the policy, just wage is pay that is "sufficient to enable individuals to support themselves and their families."

Bon Secours instituted its just wage program in 2006; the system says it was well ahead of the pack in doing do. In 2015, it brought the minimum wage for all its employees to $11 an hour, which Bon Secours says is a wage that better positions its employees to afford the costs of living. The system plans to increase it to $15 by 2022, impacting more than 3,000 employees.

Poulston, 20, says she feels "very fortunate" to have the just pay — as well as a host of other Bon Secours benefits that she says are more generous than what she would find at the vast majority of low-wage jobs elsewhere. The pay is enabling her and her fiancé to save for a home; and Poulston also is using a tuition assistance program from Bon Secours. She now is completing her prerequisites at a community college and then plans to apply for nursing school. She hopes someday to be a nurse at a Bon Secours facility.

Employee struggles
Other Catholic health systems that have formalized systemwide policies in recent years to provide just wages and benefits to employees include St. Louis-based Ascension; Renton, Wash. and Ivrine, Calif.-based Providence St. Joseph Health; and St. Louis-based SSM Health. They all say they established such policies because they are in line with Catholic social teaching and because they want to ease the economic strain that many of their low-wage workers experience.

In its recently-released white paper on just wages, "Holistically Caring for Bon Secours' Lower-Wage Employees," Bon Secours says that Catholic providers "according to their faith heritage, have the moral obligation to implement a just wage for their employees." The white paper notes that a significant majority of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. The paper notes, "Bon Secours employees are not immune from these realities. Among the 25,000-person workforce, Bon Secours employees are experiencing homelessness, paycheck garnishments and stress and anxiety related to financial demands."

According to Bon Secours, while just wages have helped many lower-wage employees, some still experience financial strain because "the recession left many employees and their families in desperate times." Additionally, many new hires arrive already burdened with financial concerns.

Sr. McGuire

Common good
Ascension implemented a socially just wage policy in 2000, and added a socially just benefit component in 2008. Ascension's Sr. Maureen McGuire, DC, says just wage and benefit policies are connected with the system's advocacy for a just society. She says key to a just society is the common good. Sr. McGuire says Ascension's sponsor and leaders have committed to implement these concepts for associate well-being, and just wages are part of that commitment. She is the system's executive vice president of mission integration.

Mary Cranstoun, group vice president, Total Rewards, human resource, Providence St. Joseph, says at that system, "just wage and benefits are part of a commitment to supporting our caregivers and their families in achieving personal well-being and financial security."

Multifactor analysis
The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn't been raised since 2009. Many cities and states across the U.S. have established their own minimum wages above that level. And some economists have argued for consideration of a living wage, which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says is a wage rate required to meet minimum standards of living.


Just wage policies vary:

  • Ascension, which has 150,000 staff across 23 states and the District of Columbia, annually assesses a wide variety of factors in all of its markets, including the cost of living, the living wages and minimum wages of other employers. It uses an algorithm that includes a living wage calculation from MIT to come up with the wages needed to maintain a reasonable standard of living in each market. It used this and other data to increase its systemwide minimum wage to $11 in 2015; and it is using the same analysis to reevaluate that wage annually, according to Herb Vallier, Ascension executive vice president and chief human resources officer. Some markets have a state- or city-mandated minimum wage that exceeds Ascension's just wage. In those locations, Ascension uses the government-set minimum.
  • Bon Secours uses data from the Department of Health and Human Services and that agency's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to annually calculate the minimum just wage for all of its markets. Just wages had been set on a market-by-market basis until 2015, when the system moved toward a systemwide minimum just wage of $11. It is increasing the minimum each year, with a plan of having a $15 just wage by the year 2022 throughout its six-state service area, according to information provided by Bon Secours' Freda Cavallaro, vice president of human resources and system compensation, and John Wallenhorst, senior vice president of mission and ethics. The 2015 bump was an average increase of 3.5 percent for the 2,400 impacted employees, representing a $1.5 million cost for the system.
  • w170515_JustWage-Wallenhorst-a
  • Providence St. Joseph Health is the result of a 2016 joining together of Providence Health & Services and St. Joseph Health. It has more than 110,000 employees in seven states. According to Cranstoun, both organizations had just wage policies before and now have created a systemwide just wage policy impacting all lower-wage workers. That policy will use a formula that takes into account federal poverty guidelines and local and federal laws, geographic variations and cost of labor and cost of living data from the Economic Research Institute. The policy will go into effect next year. The wage amount will vary by community.
  • SSM Health has more than 33,000 employees in four states. It put an $11 an hour minimum wage into effect at the start of this year. The health system estimates nearly 1,100 staff benefited.

Compression challenge
Ministry leaders acknowledge implementing a just wage policy can bring some challenges.

For instance, says Bon Secours' Cavallaro, it can be difficult to maintain this financial commitment in the uncertain and fluid health care environment. Nevertheless, she said, Bon Secours is steadfastly committed to the just wage program.

Also, says Ascension's Vallier, there was the "compression" issue: Ascension anticipated that colleagues who had been making around $11 an hour prior to the change, could question why others who did not have the credentials they did would be raised up to their wage level. Sr. McGuire says Ascension explained the mission-based reason for the change to employees in advance.


Another challenge is to ensure the raises at the low end of the pay scale do not undermine benefits employees may be receiving based on their low-income status. Government and ministry employee aid programs normally are income-based. The experts say their facilities assess how individual employees are affected by wage increases. They say in the rare cases in which benefits are threatened, local managers will work with employees to address the problem. For instance, in one Bon Secours market, an employee's benefits were threatened; but she was able to work with her supervisor and the human resources administrator to move from her part-time role to a vacant full-time job that matched her qualifications and that gave her enough hours to increase her pay substantially.

Everybody benefits
Bon Secours' white paper says the just wage and benefit policies ease stress and strain that otherwise can impact employee health.

SSM says when employees have the support they need to take care of themselves and their loved ones, they can better care for patients.

Bon Secours' Cavallaro says the just wages and benefits have resulted in increased employee engagement, loyalty and retention.

That certainly is the case for Poulston, the child care provider. She says, "I don't want to leave here, I absolutely love everything about Bon Secours, including the values."


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.