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State shares blame in pay equity dilemma

About 30 years ago, employees of Hubbard County's nursing home, then known as Sunset Nursing Home, took a courageous step. They met with county commissioners in the old courtroom of the old courthouse and confronted them about their status as the...

About 30 years ago, employees of Hubbard County's nursing home, then known as Sunset Nursing Home, took a courageous step.

They met with county commissioners in the old courtroom of the old courthouse and confronted them about their status as the county's "step-children." At the time, they were low-paid and received none of the benefits other county employees were receiving. When they met resistance, they joined a union and in the years since, they have enjoyed progress in the wages and benefits they receive.

Until the past couple of years, that is.

A series of legislative decisions have led to the dilemma Hubbard County now faces in regard to its treatment of nursing home staff.

The first was when the Legislature decided to require local units of government to submit pay equity reports every five years rather than every two or three. That decision only prolonged the inevitable.

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For a long time now, rural nursing homes also have received low rates in a complicated system that has placed them at a disadvantage in competing with other health care facilities for staff. One year, when the Legislature attempted to correct rural funding inequities, it created a situation where Heritage Living Center would have received higher reimbursement if it had been located in Osage rather than in Park Rapids.

Then there was the $4 billion state budget deficit crisis when lawmakers started parsing out money to nursing homes in the same fashion they did for schools - increases amounting to less than inflation rates. In the past four years, nursing home funding increased 4.6 percent compared to inflation increases of 11.6 percent, according to a Long-term Care Imperative report from the Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance and Care Providers of Minnesota.

It is no surprise that wages and benefits for workers in this industry have not kept up.

One way to look at this is to believe the pay equity predicament Hubbard County now faces is an unintended consequence of this messy milieu at the state level. Of course, one also can reason that it is a consequence of choosing to honor a "no new taxes" pledge that has put almost every aspect of what state government is responsible to do in "catch up" mode.

The dilemma is also, of course, a consequence of Hubbard County's long-standing policy to operate the nursing home without benefit of any dollars from local property tax levies (although over the years, the county has been more than happy to skim money that rightly should have gone to the nursing home and put it in the general fund).

Last week, we learned that in keeping with the county's policy, the county will further sever ties with Heritage Living Center so the employees wages and benefits don't have to be comparable to those other county employees receive. We suppose that will work as a move to skirt the letter of the law when it comes to pay equity rules, but certainly not the spirit or intent of the law. After all, if pay equity between male- and female-dominated employee groups had been honored all along, the women working at Sunset Nursing Home would never have been made to feel like the county's step-children decades ago.

The whole situation reminds us of Sir Walter Scott's quotation: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive."

Pay equity rules or not, the county and state need to take responsibility. Two wrongs don't make a right.

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