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Pay Raise Coming For 9,000 UNC Health Care Workers

Meredith Pounds with her colleague Lamin Sanneh on the fourth floor of UNC Rex Hospital
Jason deBruyn
Meredith Pounds with her colleague Lamin Sanneh on the fourth floor of UNC Rex Hospital

The ripping sound of Velcro snapped through a patient room as Meredith Pounds prepped to wrap a blood pressure meter around someone's arm. Bearings squeeked as she wheeled over a Pulse Oximeter and snapped it on a finger.

Pounds works as a nursing assistant on the fourth floor of UNC Rex Hospital in Raleigh. As part of her duties, she checks patient vital signs.

"Every four hours we check the patient's pulse and oxygen saturation just so it can let us know how they're doing," Pounds said.

As a nursing assistant, she's responsible for checking on patients in her wing throughout her 12-hour shift. "I’m responsible for the patient's ADLs, which is activities of daily living," she said. "Basically all the things that we do that we don't think about doing on a daily basis that a client may need assistance with."

Pounds is still in school at Johnston County Community College, so she works only a limited schedule. When she graduates after this semester, an expanded schedule will be waiting for her at Rex. She takes pride in her work and is excited to graduate and work more hours.

"Nurses are the backbone of healthcare, bur nursing assistants are the backbone of nurses," she said.

Right now, Pounds earns just under $12 per hour, but that's going to change next week. She and 9,000 hourly workers in the UNC Health Care system are getting a raise. First to $14 per hour and then a minimum of $15 per hour in July for all Triangle-based employees.

Pounds said it will let her save a little more.

"I think it will definitely give me some wiggle room to be able to enjoy more things. I'm in school, so money's tight, so that will definitely help on that aspect to pay bills." 

Duke Health already increased its minimum wage, and Cone Health will soon follow suit. WakeMed Health and Hospitals offers a gain share program and other financial incentives. Scott Doak, UNC Health Care's assistant vice president for Human Resources, said that doesn't mean the Chapel Hill system is playing catch up.

"While we are seeing some movement in the market, we're still on the leading edge of this movement to $15. We feel it's the right thing to do, at this time for a number of different reasons," he said. "Not because we're necessarily seeing turnover expanded or we're seeing market forces push us, but in fact it's the other way around. We want to be leading this force and this movement toward a living wage."

Scott Doak, UNC Health Care's assistant vice president for Human Resources
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC
Scott Doak, UNC Health Care's assistant vice president for Human Resources

Still, a better economy has given workers – even at lower income levels – more bargaining power, according to Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "You're seeing that across the country," she said.

With lower joblessness, it's harder for employers to find workers.

"You get all the positive press release kudos for doing this, but in reality it may actually be a necessity, given that workers are becoming more scarce," said Gould.

Doak, who keeps a bobblehead of Bob Ross between two computer monitors on his desk, acknowledged the competitive workforce.

"There's a lot of competition in the Triangle, as you know. So we're always looking for ways to make sure that we're providing the full experience for our employees. This move is just the latest in one of those experiences."

Doak says workers in other parts of the state might see wage increases, though likely not to the same degree as in the Triangle.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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