For a glimpse of the impact Connecticut’s new minimum wage policy promises to make on employees as well as employers, look no further than the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center (CS-HHC) serving New Haven, West Haven, and the Lower Naugatuck Valley. The health center, which employs 550 residents, this fall raised the wages of its 100 lowest-paid employees to $16 an hour.

The hike is a full dollar above the new state-mandated gradual increase from $10.10 to $15 an hour by 2023. As opponents and proponents alike lineup to prognosticate the ultimate impact of the new law, the difference a dollar increase can make in people’s lives is not lost on a community health center that provides health care for many of the state’s 330,000 minimum wage workers. An additional $40 a week, or $2,000 a year, translates into a significant impact on the financial health of individual households.

This alone, of course, won’t eliminate the deep pockets of poverty that plague Connecticut. It is, however,  a step in the right direction, particularly in a state leading the country in income inequity and health disparities. The latest report by the Economic Policy Institute released last fall showed the state ranking third in the nation in the gap between the richest and poorest residents, trailing just behind Florida and New York.

Although Connecticut over the years has received relatively favorable healthcare rankings, it continues to rank at the bottom in health inequity. Poverty, environmental issues and access to quality, affordable healthcare, among other factors, contribute to disparities in health. The harmful impact is reflected in the higher rates of chronic illnesses, infant mortality, cardiovascular and other diseases found among African Americans and Hispanics.  To make matters worse, the state’s deadly opioid epidemic, while taking a disproportionate toll on non-Hispanic white residents, is devastating residents and communities across racial, ethnic and income lines, including Greater New Haven and the Lower Naugatuck Valley.

The rising demand for substance use and other mental and behavioral healthcare services, which comes in the midst of the state’s struggle with workforce shortages, is a result of the crisis. Add to the picture, the swelling increase in Connecticut’s senior population and the urgent demand for qualified healthcare providers is apparent. Healthcare workers at every level of skill are needed. They play a critical role in delivering healthcare that effectively responds to the needs of patients, their families and their communities. This is among the driving concerns at the health center.

While pleased to find itself almost four years, and a dollar, ahead of the state, the timing is coincidental. The impetus for the raise was a commitment to the health and well-being of residents. The ability to provide affordable, high-quality health care to a community goes hand-in-hand with the ability to recruit and retain a competent and reliable workforce with the skills and talents to do the best job possible. Thus, seven years ago, when CS-HHC first embarked on its long-range capital improvement and expansion plans, attention was immediately turned to the staff.  Employee compensation levels, from the highest to the lowest wage, became a growing concern when an analysis revealed gaps.

Four years ago, a plan to incrementally bring every employee’s pay scale in line with competitive market rates was implemented. The raises this fall represent implementation of the final phase of the plan. But they are by no means the end of the story. Contrary to concerns expressed by some critics of the state’s new minimum policy, CS-HHC has not found it necessary, nor does it intend, to reduce employee hours or increase employees’ contributions to health insurance premiums or other benefits to achieve its financial objectives. Instead, the health center will continue to streamline its business operations and build greater efficiencies that allow resources to be redirected to maintaining the new, more competitive compensation levels.

Research and experience indicate that when people have the training and resources they need to do their jobs, not only are they more productive, but they also perform better.  It’s too early, of course, to predict the full effect of the shift. However, a staff turnover rate of 16 percent, below industry norms, and anecdotal evidence, including a vibrant and productive work culture, offer encouraging signs. Undoubtedly, paying workers a livable wage is the right thing to do. It is also a giant step in the right direction toward building more competitive and productive work environments in organizations dedicated to the well-being of the communities they serve.   

Michael R. Taylor is the CEO of the Cornell Scott – Hill Health Center located in New Haven, Ansonia, and West Haven.

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