CAMDEN, NJ— Corey Thorpe, a patient access specialist at Cooper University Health Care, first learned that his hourly wage was going to increase by $5 to $15 an hour while he was on the phone with a patient.

“Next thing I know, my heart jumps into my throat,” Thorpe said Monday.  “I’m trying to hide excitement, and I’m about to choke up.”

For Thorpe, the raise meant he would be able to provide a better life for his family. The 21-year-old from Pennsauken takes care of not only his grandparents but also his mother, who suffered a stroke in 2017 when he was 20.

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Thorpe is one of the 750 employees to benefit from the Camden-based health system’s minimum wage increase, announced in November and enacted on Jan. 1 of this year.

On Monday, New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal joined Cooper University Health Care Chairman George Norcross, co-presidents Kevin O’Dowd and Anthony Mazzarelli and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross [D-1] to highlight the positive impact of Cooper’s decision to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, the first health system in New Jersey to do so.

On Nov. 13, Cooper’s Chairman George Norcross announced the health system would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Shortly thereafter, Virtua, Lourdes Health System [Trinity Health System] and Jefferson Health Care all raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that will raise New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024.

Under the new law, the base minimum wage for New Jersey workers will increase to $10 an hour on July 1, 2019. By January 1, 2020, the statewide minimum wage will increase to $11 an hour, and then will increase by $1/hour every January 1 until it reaches $15 an hour on January 1, 2024, impacting more than one million New Jersey workers.

“This institution understands what a living wage can mean for the people that work here, so they didn’t wait,” Elnahal said Monday at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University Hospital. “That is leadership, that is the right thing to do, and more importantly it makes good business sense for healthcare.”

“Not only are you doing the right thing by making sure that your staff doesn’t have to worry about how they will afford their own healthcare, childcare, rent and food — but by making sure some of the hardest working folks that walk through your door don’t have to come home and still find themselves in poverty.”

Elnahal also spoke about how not only does an increased minimum wage mean more money in the pockets of some of the health systems hardest workers, but it also improves local health concerns. According to Elnahal, for every dollar the minimum wage is raised, low birth weight goes down by 1 to 2 percent; infant mortality goes down by a relative 4 percent; and reduces child neglect reports by almost 10 percent. It also can lead to a decrease in teen births, obesity, premature deaths and other mental health conditions.

“This is a laboratory for what we will be able to achieve, at the governor’s direction, across New Jersey. The benefits that you are seeing here will be noted in every single institution and organization in the state,” Elnahal said. “With this commitment, you are a shining example not only for Camden, but New Jersey’s entire healthcare industry.”

George Norcross explained Cooper’s Board of Trustees decision to increase its minimum wage. He cited his belief that the healthcare industry, as one of the largest employers in the state and country — Cooper employs 7,500 and is the largest employer in Camden County and of county residents at more than 450 — should be leaders in establishing a minimum wage.

“The thing that I’ve become perplexed about, challenged about at times, is what goes on in this country. The difference between the haves and the have-nots in this country,”  Norcross said. “The problem is getting worse by the moment, and in healthcare, which is one of the largest employers in this entire country, should in fact be leaders in this arena.”

He also wished that more health systems in the state would join Cooper in increasing the minimum wage to $15.

“Regretfully, outside of southern New Jersey, which has largely been compliant, many of the hospitals in this state have yet to step up and take a leadership role,”  Norcross said. “If we as a country, and healthcare industry, do not lead by providing a living wage — and not one that phases in over three, four, five years from now when you think of 2024-25 where the state law would mandate where Cooper is exactly today — we continue to have, and become, a region and a nation of haves and have-nots, and that just does not work.”

The health system’s chairman also said the decision to raise the minimum wage not only helps employees, but it also makes business sense.

“Anybody who runs a business knows it’s very costly to have high turnover percentages. Employees that are happy where they work, get up in the morning, feel comfortable where they are, are paid better than fairly — are employees that stay for many years,”  Norcross said.

His brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, has long been an advocate of increasing the minimum wage — first when he was a member of the New Jersey legislature, and now as a member of the U.S. Congress.

“In Washington, which should be the place where we lead by example, we have to look to South Jersey and here in Camden for that example,” Donald Norcross said on Monday, adding that it has been 11 years since the U.S. Congress has voted on raising the federal minimum wage. “It’s remarkable when we can’t get the country to move, that in the city that I’ve called home for well over a decade with all the challenges that it faces, that it is showing the way on how it can get done. That it helps both employees and employers.”

A bill to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 is currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Here in America, if you work hard, you follow the rules, you're supposed to be able to make it. Yet the fact of the matter is that’s not happening,” Donald Norcross said. “Most people understand that you’re not going to really make it on the minimum wage, but the surprise really is you’re not even coming close.

“I would encourage all employers to do what’s right, to make sure that you give all your employers the dignity of coming to work each and every day. To my friends in Washington, it's time to wake up and raise the minimum wage.”

Jadarrah Richardson also knows first-hand the effects of an increased minimum wage. When the 24-year-old Cooper University Health Care support services associate learned her $12 per hour wage was increasing, she was shocked.

“I’ve never been paid that much, so to know that I was at a company that was willing to pay me $15, that was a really big deal for me,” Richardson said Monday. Her bump in pay has allowed her to go back to school, get a car and help her mom with things around the house where they live in Pennsauken.

“It’s just remarkable that somebody decided to make sure that your are able to afford to live day to day and take care of the necessary things you need to take care of,” Thorpe said.  “Nobody makes that much money without the degrees and qualifications and things like that, but the fact that Cooper rewards you for doing the work that not everybody wants to do, or not willing to do, it's just astounding.”

“I’ve been able to take care of my family more, and have been able to feel more at ease,” Thorpe said.

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