DANVERS — With the state unemployment rate hovering at 2.8% this winter, one of the biggest challenges many nonprofit health care providers face is the recruitment and retention of talent, given the trend that millennials are prone to job-hop every few years.

One new benefit that is being offered to retain and recruit workers helps individuals repay their student loans.

In January, Danvers-based Care Dimensions, one of the state’s largest providers of hospice and palliative care, with 750 employees, began offering just that.

The perk comes at a time when outstanding student loan debt reached $1.5 trillion in the third quarter of 2019, up $20 billion from the second quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

At a North Shore Chamber of Commerce executive breakfast in January, Care Dimensions CEO Patricia Ahern said retaining and attracting staff is vital to her organization’s survival and critical to the health care industry overall.

“There is a national shortage of nurses and caregivers,” Ahern said. “This is a worldwide trend, also. We need a lot of creativity with the silver tsunami and they are all coming our way in health care.

“We will wind up needing to stay competitive in the labor market, which means that we have to be creative in the benefits we offer.”

Ahern told the Chamber gathering that employees are "over the moon over" her agency's tuition loan repayment plan.

That includes Laura Berry of Salem, a nurse practitioner and wound ostomy nurse who has worked at Care Dimensions since August 2017.

Berry, 37, is carrying between $50,000 and $100,000 in student loans from her various degrees in health care, much of it stemming from her graduate studies. She graduated from Villanova University in Pennsylvania in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She spent a year at La Salle University in Philadelphia, from 2008 to 2009, earning a post-graduate certificate in wound ostomy and continence nursing. In 2013, she graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a Master of Science in nurse primary care, family nurse practitioner.

Berry is among 60 Care Dimensions employees who have enrolled in the student loan program, according to the organization. Berry said the loan repayment plan will help keep her at Care Dimensions.

“It does help,” she said. “If you were to go looking for a new job, that’s one of the questions you would kind of be asking: What are they going to give me for tuition reimbursement or student loan assistance? Does this organization have something that’s going to be comparative to this?”

How it works

The 100% employer-paid benefit provides eligible workers $50 a month to pay down their student loan debt, while also giving them access to a loan refinancing program. Both help workers save money.

The student loan benefit is being administered by Boston-based Gradifi, a pioneer in the field, which was acquired by E*Trade in December. The firm runs similar benefits for Boston-based MassChallenge and Easterseals New Hampshire, among other nonprofits. 

Kristine DiFiore, Care Dimensions’ vice president and chief human resources officer, says the benefit is available to all eligible full-time staff, not just nurses.

“Strategically, we made a decision to offer it and not just limit it to nurses because, quite honestly, the market is so competitive right now, we are faced with the same challenging recruitment concerns not only for nurses, but for (nurse practitioners), hospice aides, for all skills ... even IT (information technologies),” she says.

But it was the nursing shortage that played into the decision to offer the benefit, she adds.

A survey of staff regarding what kind of benefits they would like to see showed that 40% of employees who responded wanted to participate in a student loan benefit program.

The $50-a-month student loan benefit is a risk for Care Dimensions, DiFiore says. Its real return will be evident one to two years down the road, when the organization determines whether staff members have been retained or recruited as a result of it.

All employees who were at the company before Dec. 31, 2019, were grandfathered into the benefit. New hires have to wait 90 days before they can become eligible.

Berry said employees who opt for the benefit continue to make their regular monthly student loan payments. The $50 benefit is an additional payment toward the principal on the loan. Gradifi provides a calculator that shows how these extra payments are reducing the time it will take an employee to pay off the debt.

DiFiore said the Gradifi platform also allows employees to refinance their student loans at no cost.

“What’s happening with young Americans is that they are faced with this debt, this enormous amount of debt, and they don’t know what to do with it,” DiFiore says.

Berry is also enrolled in a separate income-driven repayment plan. Every year she resubmits her earnings through StudentAid.gov and her payment is readjusted. Because she works for a nonprofit and takes part in the income-driven repayment plan, she qualifies for the public loan forgiveness program. That means if she works for Care Dimensions for 10 years, her student loans will be forgiven.

Statistics back it up

Katie Kantrowitz, a social media and content marketing associate for Gradifi, said the company has found that 58% of young Americans say their choice to take a job would be deeply affected by an employer’s willingness to offer a student loan benefit, and 58.2% of Gradifi benefit recipients are more likely to stay at their current company because they offer a student loan repayment benefit.

“In 2018, 4% of companies were offering a benefit like Gradifi and now it is 8% and expected to be as high as 21% by 2021,” she said. 

Gradifi’s website states that 78% of employees wish their jobs had a student loan benefit. As far as the importance of employee retention to employers goes, Gradifi’s website also points out that 43% of millennials — those young adults born between 1981 and 1996 — plan to quit their current job within two years.

Darren Ambler, a principal and managing consultant with OneDigital Health and Benefits who serves as chairman of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said his company has implemented the benefit with some of its clients, including a large regional bank that has locations on the North Shore.

Ambler said employers are recognizing that many people of all ages are dealing with student debt, which means they aren't contributing to their retirement.

In addition, he said employers are dealing with a hot jobs market, and they want to make their workplace as attractive as possible to younger workers.

“This benefit allows them to sweeten the pot,” Ambler said.

Ethan Forman may be contacted at eforman@gloucestertimes.com.

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