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By Holly Fletcher
The Tennessean, May 26, 2015

Ascension Health, which owns Saint Thomas Health, is increasing its system-wide minimum wage to $11 an hour in July, boosting wages for several hundred Tennesseans. The July 5 increase will raise hourly wages for about 10,500 people across the country, including 521 who work for Saint Thomas Health in Tennessee. Previously, the minimum wage varied at Ascension's properties, but with the change, it will be the same across the system. The federal minimum wage, which is applicable in Tennessee, is $7.25 an hour.

Tennessee led the nation in the number of minimum wage workers with about 7.4 percent of the state, or 117,000, at or below the federal minimum wage in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. ...

A variety of employees in hospitals are hourly wage earners who make tens of thousands of dollars less than higher earners, such as registered and advanced practice nurses and doctors. Minimum wage workers in hospitals often include those who work as aides and administrative support, as well as people in laundry, environmental, housekeeping and food service, among others.

The workers who earn minimum wage are often linchpins in the system, performing the tasks that are necessary but often behind the scenes. Those who work in cafeterias to provide food for patients and visitors are often among the lowest paid but are critical in making sure dietary restrictions are met. Those who work on the environmental services staff — the janitorial team — are trained in protocol to clean and sanitize medical facilities, including operating rooms, as a way to help keep infection rates low.

After the snow and ice storms this winter, Randy Davis, CEO and president of NorthCrest Medical Center in Springfield, said the hospital was pinched when the environmental and food service employees were unable to make it to work because, in many cases, they didn't have cars.

"All of a sudden your hospital is brought to its knees by not having the minimum wage staff," Davis told The Tennessean following the last ice storm in early March. ...

There is momentum in parts of the country to raise the minimum wage.

Walmart raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour in April for about 500,000 part-time and full-time employees across the country.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has pushed for states to raise minimum wages to $10.10 and toured Nashville-based Letter Logic, a local printing company that pays at least $12 an hour. ...

What people earn on average in the Nashville area

• Fast food cooks earn an average of $8.34 an hour

• Waitstaff earn an average of $8.95 an hour

• Retail salespeople earn an average of $13.10 an hour

• Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers earn an average of $19.95 an hour

• Registered nurses earn an average of $28.51 an hour

• Saint Thomas Health will raise its minimum wage workers to $11 an hour

Source: U.S. BLS, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014; Ascension

Wages by the hour

• $15,080: Income at $7.25 an hour for 40 hours a week for 52 weeks

• $22,880: Income at $11 an hour for 40 hours a week for 52 weeks

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Copyright 2015 The Tennessean