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Neighboring states' higher minimum wages creating problems for veterans' homes in Idaho

The director of the Division of Veterans Services said he’s requesting several hundred thousand dollars in his budget to raise pay for nurses and nurse’s assistants.
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BOISE, Idaho — With the very first agency budget hearing that state lawmakers held this year, they learned that Idaho’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage — unchanged for more than a decade — is becoming an issue for some crucial state services as neighboring states continue to increase their minimums.

Marv Hagedorn, director of the Division of Veterans Services and a former state senator, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that he’s requesting several hundred thousand dollars in his budget to raise pay for nurses and nurse’s assistants. Certified nursing assistants in Idaho’s three veterans homes currently make an average wage of $13.48 an hour, Hagedorn said; neighboring Washington on Jan. 1 went to a $13.50 per hour minimum wage.

“We need so many CNAs,” Hagedorn told JFAC. “For me to get a CNA in Lewiston … that’s a tough road. … We can’t compete in the staffing.”

On Friday, Hagedorn said, “I think everybody got it. We have a nationwide shortage of nurses, and we’ve got to recognize that. We’ve got a huge deficit of nurses in Idaho right now, and it’s going to cost all of us.”

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In his budget request for next year, 90% of which comes from federal funds that are paid to the state to house Idaho veterans in the three-state veterans’ homes in Boise, Lewiston, and Pocatello, Hagedorn requested $155,300 for a “compensation market alignmnent;” $241,000 to reclassify nursing positions from licensed practical nurse (LPN), which requires a two-year degree, to registered nurse (RN), which requires a four-year, a change that would be made by attrition; $1.3 million for additional staffing, including 13 nursing positions; and $50,000 to launch a student loan repayment program for RN positions to help retain them. The budget also requests a $400,000-plus security upgrade for all three state veterans homes; plus the continuation of work on a fourth veterans home in Post Falls, set to break ground in June; and a second state veterans cemetery in Blackfoot, set to open next November.

Gov. Brad Little recommended approval of all the requests, with minor adjustments to some of the figures.

Twenty-one states began 2020 with higher minimum wages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty of those took effect Jan. 1; one, New York, took effect Dec. 31. Seven states — Alaska, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Vermont — automatically increased their rates based on the cost of living, while 14 states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington — increased their rates due to previously approved legislation or ballot initiatives.

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All of Idaho’s neighboring states except Utah and Wyoming have higher minimum wages. The current minimum wages for Idaho’s neighbors are Washington, $13.50; Oregon, $12, or $11.50 in rural areas; Nevada, $9, or $8 with health insurance; Montana, $8.65. Utah’s and Wyoming’s are at $7.25, matching the federal minimum, as is Idaho’s.

A voter initiative currently is collecting signatures in Idaho to raise Idaho’s minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next five years; it would raise the minimum to $8.75 an hour on June 1, 2021, then raise it another dollar a year for the following two years and hit $12 an hour on June 1, 2024. Increases after that would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Idahoans for a Fair Wage, the volunteer group pushing the initiative, reported in December that it had collected more than 20,000 signatures; it needs more than 55,000 by April to make the November ballot, including specified numbers from 18 Idaho legislative districts.

Hagedorn told JFAC that workers in Idaho’s state veterans homes are highly dedicated. “Whatever you can do for these people that support our heroes, I certainly would appreciate that,” he said.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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