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Prospects for low-wage workers at some large companies have improved recently. Both Wal-Mart and McDonald's have announced pay hikes and one of the most significant increases came at Aetna, the big health insurance company. It boosted the pay of its low-wage workers to $16 an hour. Aetna's CEO says he believes the raise will largely pay for itself by making workers more productive. NPR's John Ydstie has this report.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Lots of energy buzzing through this room, as trainees for Aetna's call-center in Fresno, Calif. practice for calls they'll be taking soon.
KALLY DUNN: Thank you for calling Aetna. My name is Kally. Can I get your name, please?
YDSTIE: Kally Dunn is mentoring these newcomers on how to handle calls, sometimes from irate customers who can't make sense of what's covered and what's not.
DUNN: When they call, they're just - they're angry. And so it's just a lot of de-escalating, calming them down, you know, reassuring them.
YDSTIE: It can be stressful work, adding to already stressful lives for low-wage workers trying to make ends meet. So when all these workers got their pay raise last Friday, it was a big deal, says 33-year-old Fabian Arredondo (ph).
FABIAN ARREDONDO: It couldn't have come at a better time 'cause, as I mentioned, I'm getting married and we're going on a honeymoon and everything, so it's going to be helping out a lot.
YDSTIE: And it will ease some financial pressures. Arredondo's fiancee, with whom he already has a child, wants to add to the family and start saving for a house.
ARREDONDO: Finance can be one of the main stresses in people's lives and when you can pull some relief away from that stress, I definitely think it makes for - you know, a happy employee is a productive employee.
YDSTIE: Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini is convinced that's true.
MARK BERTOLINI: We wanted people at the front lines, who took care of our customers, to not have the kind of stress associated with being able to provide health coverage for their families and food for their families worrying while they were on the job to make sure that they were bringing their best selves to work every.
YDSTIE: As Bertolini and his executive team worked to understand what challenges their low-wage workers face, they discovered that to make ends meet, many were on public assistance like food stamps and Medicaid for their children. Bertolini was taken aback.
BERTOLINI: That we as a thriving organization, as a successful company, a Fortune 100 company, should have people that were living like that among the ranks of our employees.
YDSTIE: Bertolini was committed to changing that. But he discovered the cost of boosting compensation for his low-paid workers would be significant, about $27 million a year. But he also found that research shows there are costs associated with paying low wages. Low-paid workers quit more often and the turnover is expensive. There's also evidence higher-paid employees provide better customer service. Bertolini thought the potential benefits could offset the $27 million cost and improve his company's profits in the long run.
BERTOLINI: I think it's a pretty good bet that we're going to find a way to cover those costs in the long run.
YDSTIE: Your profits won't suffer it?
BERTOLINI: No, we don't see it suffering at all.
YDSTIE: Economist Alex Tabarrok is skeptical.
ALEX TABARROK: Wouldn't it be a great world if we could raise wages, increase profits and increase productivity all at the same time? But I don't think that is actually the world that we live in.
YDSTIE: Tabarrok, a professor at George Mason University, argues that most firms are already very engaged in calculating what wages are optimal for getting the highest productivity.
TABARROK: They've already explored ways to increase profits as much as possible. There's no easy solution to raise wages and increase profits at the same time. It's just not going to happen.
YDSTIE: Aetna's Bertolini says even if it doesn't boost profits and maybe even costs the company something, raising wages is still the right thing to do.
BERTOLINI: There definitely is a moral component and, you know, I had plenty of arguments that the spreadsheet wouldn't pencil out. And my view was, in the end analysis, this is just not fair.
YDSTIE: The Aetna plan also offsets the cost of any lost public aid a worker might have gotten to make sure employees end up with more disposable income than before the wage hike. Bertolini says Aetna's shareholders have gotten behind the idea.
BERTOLINI: We positioned it with them on the economics first, but went to this very notion of, you know, this isn't fair, we need to invest in our employees, we need to help restore the middle class and that should be good for the economy as a whole. And so for us, it is as much probably, for me personally, more a moral argument than it is a financial one.
YDSTIE: Bertolini has become an evangelist on this subject. He hands out a how-to packet to other CEOs at conferences to encourage them to look closely at boosting their low-income workers' compensation. He says he's getting very positive feedback from many. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
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