While many sectors of the nation debate whether, and how, they could ever raise entry level wages to $15 per hour, it’s a non-factor for nursing home operator Illuminate HC.

Why aim so low, its leaders figure. The pay rate is $17 per hour for certified nursing aides at the rapidly growing operator.

When last we checked on the eager turnaround specialists, they had only nine of their current 24 facilities and were intent on solving long-term care’s employee turnover problem. The $17 wage, which went into effect last fall, has made a distinct mark, though initial commotion from taking over numerous distressed buildings initially inflated the churn.

“It was good, certainly, for morale,” founder and CEO Yair Zuckerman told me. “The thought behind the wage increase was it would allow us to start getting selective. And it was important for them to see even before the turnaround could get successful we’re investing in the team.”

Zuckerman said the company’s goal is to offset the higher wages by lowering other costs with higher quality care. 

While the high CNA wage admittedly caused some frustration — among better educated nurses, for example — it also created unexpected waves of competition.

“People working in social services or the kitchen are saying, ‘I want to be a CNA,’” Zuckerman explains. “Whereas before a lot of people said, ‘I’m making the same money with a mop or a skillet,’ now they’re saying, ‘That’s hard work, but maybe it’s worth my getting certified.’”

Frontline workers “make or break” a facility, he believes. “We put them on a pedestal. If these people do a great job, we’ll have a quality building. Now we’re beating the Whole Foods and Walmarts and Targets. We’re getting a different breed, so to speak.”

In addition, “borderline” employees who might have been left in place are changed out more often. A nursing home operator getting to be selective about which aides it hires? All but unheard of. 

But maybe not for long. See pages 12 and 13 of this issue to learn how another provider, Christian Living Centers of Englewood, CO, has knocked down turnover while pumping up CNA wages. (On page 43, State News notes other places with wages above $15 per hour, though the Northeast generally has higher numbers.)

Successful operators, it seems, know that change is a constant.