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Meritus Health Invests in $15 Minimum Wage Four Years Before State Mandate

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Although she’s only been in the nutrition services department of Meritus Health for a little over a year, Chanel Walker knows a good number of employees … and what they enjoy eating.

“I try and remember who likes gravy and who doesn’t, because I see everyone – nurses, doctors, EVS folks – and they all play a part,” says Chanel. “You don’t know what kind of a day people are having, so I try and make each person smile. I try and pay it forward.”

Chanel recently found out that she is one of 1,100 employees at Meritus Health who now sees more in her bi-weekly paycheck as the organization raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour for those currently making less than that amount. The $2.7 million annual investment went into effect just in time for the holidays in 2020 - the year of COVID-19 and all of its uncertainties – and four years before the minimum wage of $15 becomes a requirement by the state of Maryland.

Chanel had no idea why she was going with her director to the HR department the day she learned of her raise, so her initial look of shock, followed by tears streaming down her face was understandable. When asked how she felt about the news, she said it’s a “big deal” and will “help tremendously.”

“Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for what I have now and not lacking for anything, but I wasn’t expecting this,” she says. Chanel makes sure hot food in the Robin’s Cove is coming out ready to serve and prepares desserts for purchase.

Chanel lives in Waynesboro, Pa., with her two teenage sons, and works two jobs, with her Meritus Health position being full time. The unknowns of COVID-19 and potential risk with working in a hospital setting led to thoughts of going elsewhere for work earlier last year, but Chanel says she enjoys what she is doing, who she works with and knows she is appreciated.

“It could happen anywhere you are working or grocery shopping,” she says of getting the virus. “My faith is strong, so I tend to leave it all with God. I’m blessed.”

Amy Barr, a 15-year employee with Meritus Health, demonstrated the happy dance she did when she learned of her pay increase.

“I initially teared up a bit,” says Amy. “This is very much appreciated.”

Amy says it will help with the “extras” for her husband, two kids and teenage grandson, but promises to do something for herself too. At work, Amy is known as the “unit mom,” by the staff on 5 South, her dedicated area. As such, she has been known to come in on her days off and bring treats to the staff working and help keep things positive in a workplace that can be stressful at times.

With the entrance of COVID-19 into the mix, Amy has often been called to help on the new 2 South wing, an infection containment unit recently added to the hospital. There she is meeting float pool nursing staff who are assigned to the space, as well as getting to know patients hospitalized with the virus and their family members who cannot come into the rooms to be close to their loved ones.

“I was with a patient recently when he passed and his wife asked me if he had suffered – which he had not,” says Amy. “It just broke my heart. With COVID, we are seeing many older couples hospitalized, with the husband in one room and his wife just down the hall in her own room. It is truly heartbreaking.”

Amy says she is very lucky and counts her blessings often. While she feels appreciated on the job, she was still “so excited” to learn of the extra money coming in her paycheck.

“My dad was a doctor and I work with outstanding nurses,” she says. “I love my people – the staff I work with at Meritus Health.”

Nurses from 5 South have been supporting the treatment of patients on 2 South when needed and for some, there is significant anxiety about working in the COVID unit.

“I walked alongside one of the nurses the other day who was going to her first shift on the wing and told her, ‘You’ll be fine,’” she says.

Amy says it is humbling to see families of patients being treated for COVID-19 come up to the windows of the rooms in the new wing that is on the ground level at Meritus Medical Center. She says the care teams put the shades up and turn the beds toward the windows if it is possible, so that loved ones can hold up signs and sometimes speak to the patients if they are well enough to be on the phone.

“It truly makes you want to go home and hold on to those you love each and every night,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”

Brett Palmer, a certified nursing assistant with Meritus Health for the last two and a half years, offered a “Oh my goodness! This is amazing!” when she was told the news of her increase in pay.

Brett took a pay cut when she joined the team at the hospital because she said her last job “didn’t do anything for my soul.”

Here, without the use of medicines or needles, Brett can do just about anything for her fifth floor patients and colleagues.

“I’ll clean floors, deliver meal trays, fill up supplies like gloves and wipes,” says Brett. “I’ve always loved to tinker, so stepping in wherever there is a need during this restricted time of COVID-19 on the units is the perfect fit for me.”

Brett works full time, but has been picking up extra shifts during this challenging pandemic environment.

“It’s a real struggle for everyone right now, but we all continue to work hard and we’ll all get through this together,” she says.

Brett says a good deal of time is spent reassuring patients diagnosed with COVID-19 that the hospital staff is right there, constantly checking their vital signs and watching to see what they need.

“Many of them don’t understand why we are walking in with all of this PPE (personal protective equipment) on,” says Brett. “It’s confusing and scary for them and it’s difficult for us. I miss talking with patients without being covered with the mask and shield.”

Everyone who knows Brett agrees that she always sees the situation optimistically with the glass half full. For instance, she asks patients what their favorite songs are and then sings to them. She has also been known to help them sit up and see the world better from their beds, find vases for their flowers or bring in snacks.

“I try and make them feel at home in some way, especially now, when many of us on staff are the ones holding their hands since folks from their homes can’t be in the rooms with the current restrictions,” says Brett.

Brett says she didn’t even consider leaving her job at the hospital when COVID-19 hit the community.

“I’m blessed,” she says. “I love my co-workers and my job. Often I have to make someone feel better without medicine and that can be hard to do sometimes, but I give it my all.”

During the holidays, she and her daughter made turkey decorations for all of the patients in Brett’s area. She cut them out and her three-year-old colored them for patients who would be in the hospital and without their families at Thanksgiving.

Brett planned to text her husband, who she has known since she was four years old, right away about the pay raise.

“I just can’t thank Meritus enough for this,” she says.

Of the 1,139 employees directly impacted by the minimum wage increase at Meritus Health, 80% received between $1-3/hour increases in pay. The change affected nursing and medical assistants, unit secretaries, pharmacy techs, phlebotomists, nutrition and environmental services staff, clinical observers and sterile processing employees. Amy, Brett and Chanel are among the 86% of the total number of employees impacted who are women.

“Our workforce is our community and income directly impacts a person’s health, from one’s mental health to decisions a household makes in terms of what to purchase – the meal or the medicine,” says Maulik Joshi, Dr.P.H., president and chief executive officer of Meritus Health. “This decision was in the works before COVID-19 hit, so even with the challenges our health system faced, we wanted to continue to do the right thing and move this forward.”

The minimum wage increase was made alongside the investment of a $400 bonus paid to each employee excluding senior leadership and providers, who were employed with Meritus Health prior to April 1, 2020, and stayed with the organization during this challenging time of COVID-19.