Bon Secours' benefits ease the strain for low-income employees

October 1, 2013

Several years ago, managers at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond, Va., were frustrated with the high level of absenteeism among low-wage workers on the Friday after payday.

Some managers assumed, wrongly, that workers called in sick after a late night partying. But, when asked directly, many employees said they were absent because they had to pay their bills in person. This involved frequenting a check-cashing service then taking the bus to utility companies and other creditors to pay their accounts in cash — all because they did not have bank accounts.

St. Mary's partnered with a bank and credit union on a "group banking" program allowing all employees to open accounts without the usual bank fees, sign up for direct deposit of payroll checks, have access to a teller machine on-campus, have a debit card attached to their accounts and have the opportunity to take a free class on how to bank. This way, staff can pay their bills electronically or with a check, saving time and often exorbitant check-cashing fees. St. Mary's credits the program with reducing absenteeism. St. Mary's is part of Bon Secours Virginia Health System of Richmond, a member of Bon Secours Health System of Marriottsville, Md.

The banking program is one of many examples Bon Secours Virginia executives shared recently with ministry colleagues of how they listen to their low-wage employees to understand their needs, and then develop programs and benefits to meet those needs. The approach enables Bon Secours to ease financial and other strains of the working poor, and also to reap the benefits of a more engaged and satisfied workforce, according to Jim Godwin, vice president of human resources for Bon Secours Virginia, and Wes Thiss, director of environmental services for St. Mary's. During a program at the Catholic Health Assembly in June in Anaheim, Calif., and during a webinar in August, Godwin and Thiss described "Strategies to Support the Working Poor Among Us."

They said like most health care facilities, Bon Secours employs many people who are among the working poor, and the system believes its mission to aid the poor applies not only to patients but also to these staff. The Bon Secours system parent company, its subsystems and its facilities all have developed policies, protocols, benefits and programs to improve employees' prospects and to help them stretch their dollars, they said.

'Just wages'
Thiss said the programs and benefits for low-wage workers encompass "just wages," housing, insurance, transportation, food, education and skills advancement, and child care.

The Bon Secours system implemented a just wage protocol in 2006, and it is in effect at its 19 hospitals and nine eldercare facilities in six states. Annually, Bon Secours evaluates its minimum pay and adjusts it by region. The wage floor normally ends up being about 26 percent higher than the federally mandated minimum wage, according to Godwin.

To address housing concerns, Bon Secours Virginia worked with local banks on a first-time home owner program for employees whose household income is less than $65,000 annually. Eligible employees get a $5,000 loan from Bon Secours for a down payment; and the loan is forgiven if they pay their mortgage on schedule for three years. The employees also get $350 toward closing costs.

Bon Secours Virginia offers medical, dental and vision benefits to full- and part-time workers and pays up to 93 percent of the insurance cost for all workers. Additionally, it pays a premium rebate to low-wage staff. All workers also can get discounts off their insurance for meeting certain health incentives, such as having an annual physical.

St. Mary's has adjusted its earliest shift — from 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. — to accommodate those taking the bus, since a limited number of buses run early in the morning, and none arrived exactly at 7 a.m. The facility also provides a shuttle to the main bus line stop. And, it has a web resource that provides employees with tips to save money on driving. It publishes daily updates on the cheapest places to buy gas around Richmond.

With food insecurity a concern for many low-wage workers, St. Mary's offers a 10 percent discount at hospital cafeterias for its employees. The hospital also hosts an on-site, seasonal farmer's market, which gives staff access to fresh fruits and vegetables that can be scarce in low-income residential areas.

St. Mary's offers low-wage workers a 50 percent tuition discount at its on-site day care center. The facility also makes its workers aware of local and state aid programs that pay all or part of child care costs.

St. Mary's offers a patchwork of assistance programs for low-wage employees who want to further their education. It provides tuition assistance as well as up-front payment for books and fees. It offers skills courses online and in a classroom setting through its "Good Help University," its "School at Work" and a leadership development curriculum called STRIDE. It also pays for and allows some paid time off for people taking literacy, or English as a Second Language classes or earning their general equivalency diploma.

Return on investment
Godwin and Thiss said the programs for low-wage workers have decreased turnover and improved attendance and worker engagement. Also, Godwin said, the organization gets a richer applicant pool for lower-paying jobs, as word gets out that the facility is a good place to work, with better wages and benefits than its competitors.

Godwin said particularly in the case of the education and advancement programs, many of the rewards of helping low-wage employees are not easy to measure but are directly related to Bon Secours' mission. "One of our strategic initiatives is liberating the potential of our people, and we take this very seriously. These people are given gifts by God, and we can help the employee to utilize these gifts to make their lives full and so that they are a contributor to the ministry.

"This is part of recognizing the value of the work of these individuals," he said.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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