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Southern Illinois hospitals increase pay, invest in workforce to stabilize care amid pandemic

Healthcare workers normally face work-related stress, but working with a new, unfamiliar virus during a pandemic has multiplied those stressors.

“We've recognized that the staff has been under unreasonable pressure in 18 months during this pandemic. It's been hard; it's been incredibly hard," SIH President and CEO Rex Budde said.

Early in the pandemic, hospital staff was taking care of patients and trying to determine the best way to treat the symptoms of COVID-19. Nothing existed to help prevent the disease from spreading.

Since the more contagious Delta variant started to hit hospitals in mid-July, Budde said the conversation with staff has changed.

“Just taking care of people that are that sick and they're dying, is emotionally draining. And on top of it … it didn't have to happen. You know, if people would have been vaccinated, they wouldn't have been there,” Budde said.

President Joe Biden is heading to Chicago on Thursday, continuing his campaign stressing the need for vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

SIH Vice President of Human Resources Pam Henderson and her team looked at how SIH was paying its employees, given the difficulty of working through the pandemic. 

“We changed our philosophy a little and offered some market adjustments that I believe included benefits that total some $13 million, in terms of increases to those folks closest to the bedside,” Budde said.

Market adjustments included: Increasing the entry level wage from $12.14 an hour to $14 hour; increasing the starting wage for patient care techs to $15 an hour; increasing the hourly wage for bedside registered nurses by $4.15 an hour; increasing hourly wages for additional direct care clinicians such as respiratory therapists, rehabilitation and physical therapists, lab techs, imaging specialists and others.

“It wasn't a one-time bonus, it's an increase in in their base compensation,” Budde said.

In addition, eligible employees received a 3% merit raise on top of the market adjustments.

He added that the pay increases were a way to take care of people, stabilize the workforce, say thank you and make working in healthcare attractive.

Henderson believes the employees are happy with the new pay levels.

“They're very happy about that. They're very appreciative. We're still getting all the details out there, but it kind of put a little spark back in. You tell people that you appreciate them, but this is actually showing them that they're appreciated. It's gone a long way,” Henderson said.

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A nurse leader portrays a patient involved in motor vehicle accident during a trauma drill on Nov. 1, 2019, at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. The hospital is the only trauma center in Illinois south of Springfield.

She said hiring managers are getting more applications, too. Last week, SIH received 1,300 applications. A total of 68 new employees started, with 49 or 50 of them attending on-boarding class.

At the end of September, SIH leaders said they were advertising more than 600 positions — most of which were not related to the system's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

At the time, SIH also reported 97.4 percent of the organization’s employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 or have received at least one dose of the vaccine. About 160 employees, plus 60 at Harrisburg Medical Center, had voluntarily resigned or have had their employment terminated for lack of compliance with the vaccine mandate.

SIH has a total workforce of 3,600 to 3,700 employees. Henderson said the number changes daily.

“It's not just the salaries, not just one thing. We also have a new director of talent acquisition who's got a lot of great creative ideas. It's a combination of all those things,” Henderson said.

Other healthcare providers in the region also are assessing their workforces.

SSM Health, which operates Good Samaritan Hospital in Mount Vernon, has announced it will implement a new minimum wage of $15 per hour throughout its four-state system on Oct. 10.

This increase will impact nearly 3,000 team members across Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — about 7% of SSM Health’s total workforce of nearly 40,000 employees.

“As a leading employer in each of our communities, our ongoing commitment is to foster a diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace – which includes providing fair and socially just wages and benefits for our team members, along with robust programs and resources designed to promote wellness,” Laura S. Kaiser, president and CEO of SSM Health, said.

Reva Weems, regional director of employee relations for Quorum Health, said their local property, Heartland Regional Medical Center, currently employs a staff of 430, many of whom — over 64% — have been there for five or more years.

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“Like almost all hospitals in the country, we continue our efforts to recruit and retain qualified nursing staff as we manage the ongoing impact of COVID-19. At present, we have a wide range of position openings across our hospital and associated clinics. The specific number of open positions varies day-to-day, and the number of applications is consistent with what we typically receive in non-pandemic years,” Weems said.

Some of the hospital's employment benefits include: Sign-on bonuses for select positions; outstanding shift and weekend pay; vacation, sick and holiday paid time off; medical, dental and vision benefits for full and part-time employees; educational assistance eligibility after a 90-day introductory period; and a 401k.

President Joe Biden is heading to Chicago on Thursday, continuing his campaign stressing the need for vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

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