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Colebrook health center pays 'livable wage'

Union Leader Correspondent

March 19. 2017 11:19PM
The executive committee of the Indian Stream Health Center in Colebrook, shown here last month, recently voted to support a pay scale that provides a “livable wage” to the Center's employees. (JOHN KOZIOL/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

COLEBROOK —The Indian Stream Health Center recently decided to offer employees at least $15 per hour as it contends with an industry-wide shortage of skilled workers.

Located within the shadow of Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital, the ISHC is a federally qualified health center that annually provides services to some 8,000 patients from Coos County and surrounding areas of Maine, Vermont and Canada — regardless of their ability to pay.

ISHC has seven medical-health providers, five behavioral-health providers, a pharmacist and more than 50 other full-time employees.

“What we’re basically saying is that we want to be an employer of choice,” ISHC board president Gail Fisher said Wednesday. “We feel that a livable wage is $15 an hour,” she said, citing worker expenses such as child care, food, shelter, transportation and medical coverage.

This wage, which is already possible under ISHC’s existing wage scale, will help keep workers in the North Country and at ISHC, said Fisher, “and by retaining people you get better quality health care.”

ISHC CEO Jonathan Brown said the wage standard will help the health center prepare for the future.

“We’re in a health-care environment, where, if I look out for the next five, 10, 15, 20 years, there’s a physician shortage, a nursing shortage, so recruitment is tough now and it’s extra tough in Colebrook, N.H., and it may be darn near impossible in 2020,” he said.

Brown, who began working at ISHC almost a decade ago in its information technology department, remembers making $30,000 a year back then and living paycheck to paycheck while providing for his family.

“So I’ve been there and I’m not far removed from being in that position, so personally I’m driven to ensure, as the CEO, that we are paying people a livable wage,” Brown said. “We ask so much of our people and financial stresses really wear on the performance, the attitude and general success of a person.”

Brown expects that ISHC will see a reduction in its profit margin by adopting the measure, but he also believes that “it is going to save us money long term in recruitment fees” and will also increase morale and workforce productivity.

For new employees, ISHC’s wage may begin at $14 or $14.50 per hour and increase to $15 after a monthslong introductory period. Brown doesn’t expect that wages will be adjusted retroactively for current employees and noted that some positions, because they require more education and experience, will pay more.

The livable wage “is a baseline we believe in” but not a huge leap in terms of the number of people who will be affected, he said. The bigger leap, said Brown, “is the ideology to make this change.”

While ISHC may be among the first in the North Country to offer a livable wage, the idea is not new in New Hampshire.

Last year, the Monadnock Living Wage Group, which describes itself as a coalition of leaders in the fields of business, faith, social service, nonprofit services, government and education, identified “the wage/income gap as a key opportunity to work together to make the Monadnock Region a healthier place to live, learn, work, play and heal.”

The group said that 29 percent of households in the Monadnock Region make less than $25,000 per year, which means “their hourly wage is inadequate to maintain a safe and decent standard of living.”

When workers earn less than a living wage, which the group said was $15 per hour, “economic development, personal health and employee productivity are all sacrificed.”

Seven Monadnock Region businesses have pledged to pay all employees a living wage by 2020, according to the coalition. They include Deep Roots Massage and Bodywork, the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, Keene Housing, The Insurance Source, Tree-Free Greetings, W.S. Badger Co. and Antioch New England Graduate School.

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