Elliot

Operating room nurse Rebecca Fleuriet helps prepare patient Luke Wright for surgery during a recent shift at Elliot at River’s Edge in Manchester. She started at Elliot in the fall of 2018 with $42,000 in student loan debt and is now receiving $100 a month from Elliot Health System toward her loans.

Call it payback for all those college all-nighters spent studying.

What's Working

Fidelity Investments is helping Merrimack employee Meaghan Chesnulevich chip away at her $44,000 student loan balance by directly paying $166 each month toward her student loans, on top of the $425 a month she is paying.

The high net-worth service associate graduated from Regis College in Weston, Mass., 10 years ago with $65,000 in debt.

“Sometimes, you question it was a lot of money to go at that time,” said Chesnulevich, 32. “I had a real great college experience. I don’t regret it for a second, and I’m still paying for it.”

Elliot

Operating room nurse Rebecca Fleuriet wheels a patient into surgery during a shift at Elliot at River’s Edge in Manchester in August 2019.

In New Hampshire, 1,240 Fidelity employees have saved $9.5 million: $7.2 million toward principal loan payments and $2.3 million in interest payments since the program began in 2016. The average savings per person, through April, was $4,090, according to company figures.

“Fidelity employees in New Hampshire have shaved off 1,426 years of loan payments,” said Cindy Silva, head of financial benefits.

More companies across the country are offering thousands of dollars a year per employee to help ease crushing student debt.

Nationwide, 8% of companies this year reported offering loan repayment help, double from last year, according to an annual employee benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. By comparison, 56% offer college tuition assistance.

New employees at Mascoma Bank who were recent college graduates “were struggling,” said Beverly Widger, chief human resource officer for the bank, which has 15 locations in New Hampshire, from Lancaster to Keene.

“They had to pay their rent, which was quite high in our area, and on top of that they had significant loans,” she said. “It was considered a retention tool as well as a recruitment tool.”

There are 28 employees at Mascoma Bank — including 14 New Hampshire residents — receiving $100 per month, up to a maximum of $6,000.

“This past year, we hired back five (former) interns that had worked for us, and one of the reasons they came back is they knew about our student pay-down loan program,” Widger said.

NH loan debt fourth in nation

New Hampshire’s Class of 2017 college graduates recorded the fourth-highest average student loan debt in the nation, at $34,415, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Granite State grads have landed in the top slot in past years.

New Hampshire had the highest percentage of students with student debt, at 74%.

The state also has the nation’s fourth-lowest unemployment rate, creating a scramble for employers to attract and keep workers.

“More and more employers are actively engaging in conversation and want to provide this as a benefit,” said Christine Roberts, head of student lending at Citizens Bank, which has a system that helps employers make payments directly to firms servicing the student loans.

Federal legislation is pending on making such financial help tax-free.

At Elliot Health System, nurses can receive $100 to $400 a month up to a maximum of $20,000. To date, nearly 200 nurses have enrolled.

“About six months after they start, they get their first college loan bill and they are horrified at the price,” said Martha Leighton, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Elliot. “They can’t afford college loans, a car and (to) move out.”

After Elliot invests between $34,000 and $64,000 in orientation costs per new nurse, losing about the national average of 12% of them within the first two years is “a struggle,” Leighton said.

“They’re either going to the big city for a lot more money or doing travel nursing assignments because the travel nursing pays for your housing for where you are,” she said.

“Definitely, anecdotally, people are telling us that student loans and a lack of affordable housing, to be able to manage both of those things, is what’s driving them to go to other options,” Leighton said.

One nurse, upon hearing about the program, cried out of a feeling of relief, Leighton said.

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Operating room nurse Rebecca Fleuriet uses a computer while in between patients during a shift at Elliot at River’s Edge in Manchester recently.

‘Like a mortgage payment’

Courtney Pugsley, a nurse at Elliot’s Bedford urgent-care center, is receiving $300 a month to help chip away at her $45,000 in college student loans. At more than $900 a month, loan payments feel “like a mortgage payment,” the 30-year-old said.

When Elliot announced the nurses-only program would start July 1, she said, “Everyone was super excited.”

Portsmouth Regional Hospital kicked off its loan assistance program in January as part of a benefit from its parent, HCA Healthcare. The program is also available at its sister hospital, Parkland Medical Center in Derry.

“We want people to have financial wellness,” said Samantha O’Neill, Portsmouth’s vice president of human resources.

For competitive reasons, she said she couldn’t say how much money employees could receive and didn’t know how many were participating.

“People choose different organizations for different reasons,” O’Neill said. “I think this is definitely a differentiator because it’s not just for nurses.”

O’Neill said Portsmouth Regional Hospital faces the same challenges as its competitors in New Hampshire and surrounding states, competing for workers in an era of low unemployment.

“There is also a nursing workforce shortage, so that adds a different layer of complexity and challenge,” O’Neill said.

At Fidelity, employees with more than six months of tenure can receive up to $2,000 a year toward student loans, up to a $10,000 maximum. Part-time workers can earn half those amounts.

Fidelity spokesman Kimberly Reingold said loan assistance is a “relatively new benefit a lot of companies are offering.” Fidelity also administers benefits for employers, including their 401(k) accounts.

She said 50% of Fidelity’s own new hires with student debt say the program was “a major factor in their decision to join Fidelity.”

State workers benefit, too

Sarah Stanley, public information officer at the state Department of Health and Human Services, said 59 health care workers received loan repayment benefits in return for working in certain fields in designated areas.

The state last fiscal year allocated $960,000 toward the benefit.

Physicians in their first year will receive $30,000 for the 12 months of service. Licensed clinical social workers in their first year will receive $20,000 for the 12 months of service. Each of the next 12 months of service decrease by $5,000 each year, she said.

“What we do know is that employers use this as a tool to recruit new providers and to retain current providers,” Stanley said. “The program only funds those providers working with under-served populations or in under-served areas. These are often the most challenging positions to recruit and retain. There is a federal formula to determine under-served areas and portions of the state are designated as such.”

Federal workers also are getting help with their loans.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management “continues to support Federal agencies’ use of student loan repayment benefits to recruit and retain the best possible workforce to serve the American people,” a June report said.

In 2017, 34 federal agencies provided 10,206 employees with a total of more than $74.9 million in student loan repayment benefits. That represented 3.4% more employees and 4.6% more in costs compared to 2016.

Mascoma’s Widger said employees who had parent-plus loans to help fund their children’s education were disappointed.

Parent-plus loans are taken out — and repaid — by parents for their dependent children’s education. In most cases, they are ineligible for employer loan repayment programs.

“Anytime you launch something, you can’t please everyone, so we’ve had a few people who are disappointed that they didn’t fit into the program,” Elliot’s Leighton said.

But for the most part, she said, “They see this as something that will help retain staff.”

Elliot

Operating room nurse Rebecca Fleuriet catches up at the nurse’s station at Elliot at River’s Edge in Manchester in August 2019.

Rebecca Fleuriet, 28, who started at Elliot last October, is an operating room nurse at Elliot at River’s Edge. She came with $42,000 in loan debt and is receiving $100 a month toward loans now. That total will soon increase to $400 a month if she remains employed at Elliot.

“It’s going to help me in paying them off faster,” Fleuriet said. “Super grateful.”

What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education.

Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.