Lynne S. Katzmann, Ph.D., speaks at the 2015 NIC Fall Conference.
Lynne S. Katzmann, Ph.D., speaks at the 2015 NIC Fall Conference.

At a time when many senior living providers are taking a stand against proposed minimum wage increases across the country, Juniper Communities is taking the opposite approach. April 1, the Bloomfield, NJ-based company implemented its new 15X20 program, which has the goal of increasing hourly minimum wages in its communities to $15 by the year 2020.

“We’ve always been committed intellectually to a living wage and have always known that the people who work for us often struggle, that many of them work multiple jobs to make ends meet for their families and that that then creates issues for them on the job,” Juniper Communities Founder and President Lynne S. Katzmann, Ph.D., told McKnight’s Senior Living in an exclusive interview.

The national drive toward a $15 hourly minimum wage prompted the company to act on its commitment, she said, adding that Juniper expects to see the plan through as long as “the stars align in the way we expect.”

“We’re in favor of a living wage, which is not necessarily $15 an hour in every location, but $15 is where we think national legislation will go over the next couple of years,” Katzmann said. “While there is no $15 minimum wage in our markets at the moment, we believe it’s inevitable.” New Jersey, one of four states in which the company operates (the others are Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania), probably will follow neighbor New York’s April 4 action to raise the statewide minimum wage, she predicted, and legislation also has been passed in California and proposed in Pennsylvania.

“This is going to happen whether we want it to or not,” Katzmann said. “If we don’t start looking at it now, it could have serious financial repercussions down the road. You can’t just make this happen overnight.”

So company leadership set the wheels in motion about eight months ago, researching living wages and reviewing starting wages and wage scales in all of Juniper’s buildings. The 15X20 program went into effect April 1 in all but three of the company’s 20 buildings (although it may be implemented in one of those three later this year), and employees could see increases ranging from 50 cents to $2 depending on their geographic area beginning July 1. The program is tied to a larger workforce development effort to reduce turnover, call-offs and overtime and increase buy-in into the company’s culture, however, Katzmann said.

“It’s not all about the money,” she said. “It’s also about the culture, and it’s about purpose at work and being clear that the people we hire are valued for their commitment and their passion to making lives better for the people they serve.”

New employees at Juniper Communities now have the opportunity to earn a pay increase after 90 days if they meet certain criteria, and existing employees are eligible based on a 90-day look-back period, too. “You can’t have a higher starting wage than people who have been working with you for several years,” Katzmann said. “We had to address that as well.”

To obtain a raise, employees must not have had unexcused call-offs or excessive absenteeism, cannot have been tardy, must have abided by the company’s code of conduct, cannot have been written up for any infraction, can’t have been the subject of a complaint from a family member or resident, cannot have committed a safety violation, and must have worn their uniforms and name tags at all times while on the job.

Additionally, employees must have completed Juniper’s onboarding program as well as electronic training for mandatory requirements with a minimum score of 80%. Also, because Juniper caregivers receive consistent assignments, each must be able to prove that he or she knows 10 things about one resident designated as a “best friend.”

All in all, Katzmann said, “What this says is, ‘We’re going to pay you more, but we’re going to expect more.’ ”

Juniper found funds for the increases by switching to a lower-cost benefits plan, Katzmann said, but in the future, the company hopes to realize savings through the reductions in turnover, call-offs and overtime that it hopes result from the program.

Juniper introduced the new program at town hall-type meetings in each location, where a corporate leadership team member also met with managers to explain how to administer the program and hold workers accountable. Reaction from staff members, Katzmann said, has been “superb, superb, superb.”

“People are thrilled, not only for the prospect of higher wages,” she said. “We call ourselves innovative at Juniper, but this is proof for them that it applies not just to our residents and our programs but also to the people who do the work.”

Time will tell whether the program accomplishes its intended goals, Katzmann said, adding that she hopes that it offers Juniper a competitive advantage, not just over other senior living providers but also over employers such as Walmart and McDonald’s. “Whether you like it or not, that’s who we compete against,” she said.

“A lot of people are pretty pessimistic, and they say, ‘Well, you’re just raising the base for everyone,” Katzmann added. “And our point is, it’s going to get raised anyway. We’re not trying to make life more difficult for our competitors. What we’re trying to do is build a workforce that provides high-quality care and service, because that’s what we do. And when you do that, your beds are filled.”