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Warner Thomas, President and CEO of the Ochsner Health System.

Ochsner Health System, the state's biggest nonprofit health care company, said Thursday that it will raise its minimum wage to $12 per hour, an almost $4 increase that will affect more than 1,200 employees across the system.

The move, which is effective Jan. 20, comes amid renewed debate over minimum wage proposals in the Louisiana Legislature. Louisiana is among five states that never adopted a state-level minimum wage rate, and in turn the state defaults to the federal rate, which has remained unchanged at $7.25 per hour since 2009.

Ochsner, the state’s largest private employer, was already above that level for its lower-wage jobs, which span various areas of the hospital system from housekeeping, food preparation to janitorial work. It currently pays a minimum of $8.10 per hour.  

Ochsner officials are making the change based on recommendations that were drawn from a recent human resources review, which focused on initiatives to improve the financial well-being of its employees.

“Although Ochsner was already well above the current Louisiana minimum wage, we wanted to do more. We are committed to growing jobs and to offering new and innovative programs that provide financial wellness, workforce development and lifelong learning opportunities to our own team and to those who want to join us,” Ochsner President and CEO Warner Thomas said Thursday.

It's unclear whether Ochsner’s move will push other local health care providers to make similar changes.

Roughly 430 of LCMC Health’s more than 8,600 employees earn less than $12 per hour, according to Chad Courrege, senior vice president of human services. All are paid above the federal minimum wage, he said.

LCMC, which manages five facilities, including University Medical Center and Children's Hospital, both in New Orleans, “remains committed to offering an engaging work culture to attract and retain the best and brightest talent,” Courrege said.

At Tulane Medical Center, the minimum wage is currently $10.50 per hour, but more than 96 percent of employees make above $12 per hour, according to Nick Adams, the associate vice president of marketing for HCA MidAmerica Division, which runs the facility.

"We are always assessing the market and making adjustments to ensure we remain competitive across the compensation spectrum," Adams said.

Walter Lane, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans who studies health care economics, is skeptical that it will have a broader ripple effect, since many of these positions are not limited to health care and transcend other industries as well, including tourism and hospitality.

These are “high-turnover” jobs, he said, and it makes sense to offer employees the added incentive to stick around, given the high costs involved with hiring and training new employees.

“Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do, but also it’s a competitive thing to do,” said Lane, who serves on the board of the St. Tammany Parish Hospital Service District No. 2, the nine-member commission that oversees Slidell Memorial Hospital, an independent community hospital that’s part of the Ochsner Health Network.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.