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Randy's Ramblings: Decent pay and a good nursing home are worth preserving

Randy Hanson

There they go again, to adapt a line from a former president.

Three years after citizens voted 27,219 to 14,648 for St. Croix County to continue to operate a nursing home, the county board has set another referendum on the issue.

This time, county residents will be asked to approve a specific subsidy of $333,002 for 2012.

The $2 is odd. It implies that county officials know to the precise dollar how much taxpayer support will be needed this year. That isn't the case. While the income gap could increase in 2012, last year's shortfall was about half that amount.

But the claim that county home workers are overpaid is what has piqued my interest in the issue.

It's personal for me, I'll admit. One of my younger sisters, a certified nursing assistant, has worked the overnight shift at a nursing home up north for the past 13 years.

She'd be mortified if I elaborated on her personal finances, but I know it's a struggle at times.

I was curious if workers at the St. Croix County Health Center in New Richmond really are riding the gravy train, so I asked County Administrator Pat Thompson for the nursing home's wage and salary schedule. Tammy Funk, the county's human resources director, promptly replied with the information.

Compared to what my sister makes at the home run by a church-related non-profit organization, the county workers are more comfortable. A nursing assistant starts at $13.17 an hour at the county home. With increases every six months, they can reach the top rate of $16.27 an hour after two and half years.

That's hardly a fortune, especially when a majority of unionized employees work part-time.

My sister is familiar with the part-time ploy so prevalent in the service sector. The newly hired nursing assistants at her home are held to five to seven shifts per two-week pay period. That keeps them from being eligible for health and dental insurance, the only real fringe benefit the home offers.

My sister, because of her seniority, has been able to hold onto her nine shifts per pay period, which is considered full-time. About $100 is taken out of her paycheck for health insurance every two weeks.

The private home puts $300 a year into a 401(k)-type retirement plan for my sister. She hasn't been able to afford to contribute any of what's left of her paycheck to the fund.

She makes about $12.50 an hour, she said. Maybe $12.60. They used to get a 10-cent an hour raise each year, but that came to an end a couple of years ago.

I thought my sister might be jealous when I told her what the nursing assistants at the St. Croix County nursing home make. But she wasn't.

"They make a lot more than me, but I certainly don't begrudge them for it. They earn every penny of it. I don't think they're paid too much," she said.

Speaking of the day- and evening-shift nursing assistants at her home, my sister added: "You just wouldn't believe what some of those girls do in an hour for $12. It's shameful. It seems pretty heartless (their pay)."

That's what we've come to in America. If you can force a worker to accept less than a living wage and no benefits -- all to save a corporate high-flier or early retiree living in a starter castle 20 bucks a year -- that's what you do. That's capitalism. Vulture capitalism, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry put it in a moment of clarity.

My sister works the overnight shift because she couldn't take the physical demands of getting a passel of frail elderly people dressed and ready for breakfast in the morning. The percentage of residents needing a lot of help has risen in recent years as assisted-living facilities such as Comforts of Home have siphoned off the healthier seniors, according to my sister.

The number of residents that nursing assistants -- the workhorses of the nursing home -- are required to care for has risen precipitously over the years, she tells me. They can't devote the attention to residents that they would like to.

I should add that there are a couple of pay steps below the one for nursing assistants, ward clerks and cooks at the St. Croix County Health Center.

Unit assistants and activity aides start at $10.25 an hour and plateau at $12.89 an hour. The range for food service workers, laundry workers, housekeepers and custodians is $11.74 an hour to $14.49 an hour.

I also talked to Esther Scott Wentz, a county board member from New Richmond, knowing that she has been an outspoken supporter of the county nursing home.

Wentz pointed out that the institution that evolved into the county nursing home began in the late 1880s. It started as an insane asylum, served as a poor farm and then was converted to a nursing home. The current facility was built in 1982.

"We were in business long before these other Johnny Come Latelys came," Wentz said. "They came into the business to make money. We were into the business to take care of our citizens who needed help. We have never veered from that mission."

The county home provides some of the best nursing home care there is, as attested to by its five-star (top) federal quality rating, Wentz added. And it takes any county resident that it can care for without regard to ability to pay.

"It is a very, very nice place," Wentz said. "Granted, it is not brand new. But when you walk into it, it has a feeling of serenity. It has a feeling that the people there are happy."

"I don't know what it is. Maybe people are against helping other people," Wentz lamented regarding efforts to privatize the home. Other county spending is never subjected to such intense scrutiny, she said.

Indeed. What's the problem?

Christianity gets thrown around a lot in political discourse these days. I wish some Christians would pay closer attention to the teachings of the founder of the religion, who said you can't serve both God and money, and that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, it is possible.

They just need to let the Lord get a hold of their hearts, my late Pentecostal preacher father would say.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066