American employers applaud and celebrate our veterans, yet too often they turn their backs on them for one of the most critical determinants of veterans' health and wellbeing: a job. This is untenable. Every employer has a duty to serve those who have served us, and I believe health systems hold a special place in doing so.
Research has found post-9/11 veterans have experienced greater difficulty in the re-entry process than those who served before 9/11. Unfortunately, veterans name unemployment as one of their greatest post-military concerns. More than a third of post-9/11 veterans have said they think prospective employers see veterans as dangerous or broken, according to research from the USC School of Social Work. Veterans seeking work also report being continuously referred to online hiring initiatives that are nothing more than dead-ends and don't result in substantial job prospects.
To address that problem and also meet the medical and behavioral health needs of veterans and their families, Northwell Health created an Office of Military and Veterans Liaison Services in 2009. We began working with local veterans' advocates to recruit and assist those returning from military duty in finding work, while also focusing on ways to better coordinate medical care. For instance, in 2012, we collaborated with the US Department of Veterans Affairs in Bay Shore, NY, to open the first-of-its-kind behavioral health facility designed to help military families cope with the emotional burdens veterans frequently face after returning home from combat.
What became painfully obvious is that the stresses on veterans and families are often financial, even among our own employees serving in the Reserves. I remember getting a phone call from the wife of an employee who had been deployed overseas. She called to ask for an accommodation on benefits. As I spoke with her, I realized they were struggling financially because her husband's military income was significantly less than what he was earning with the health system before he was deployed. I called our head of HR and said, "There has to be something we can do. This is ridiculous." Northwell's pay differential program was born from that conversation.
For any Northwell employee who is deployed in the military and has to leave home — domestically or overseas — we make up the difference between their military pay and the salaries they would have received as a civilian. Over the past decade, we have awarded pay differential checks totaling nearly $2 million to 44 veterans. It's the right thing to do, and I've been advocating for other employers, including healthcare organizations, to do the same. I don't believe you should serve your country and then be impoverished because you did so.
In addition to our pay differential program, recruitment is a major focus of our efforts. Long Island is home to the largest military veteran population in New York State, and we hire approximately 500 veterans each year. I have learned a lot about how these men and women approach work, leadership and their communities. Veterans see challenges in a different light. They have experiences in circumstances few people ever encounter or understand. Veterans are generally unfazed by what some would consider a big problem or undertaking. Many have also spent time in different countries, and they add a level of cultural sensitivity that is absolutely critical for health systems that serve diverse populations.
Veterans also understand accountability. The military is more hierarchal than how we operate at Northwell, but our veteran employees understand the need to deliver and prove themselves. They do not complain, but seize opportunity, roll up their sleeves and get to work. Many also have managerial experience, and thrive in leading teams and holding others accountable, too.
Speaking of teams — health care has never been more of a team sport. Veterans have endured situations in which they had to work as a team to survive, and the bonds formed are some of the strongest known to humankind. That experience of supporting and helping one another in the field is invaluable, regardless of the job they hold within Northwell — be it in patient care, finance, IT, security, culinary or administration. Without fail, when veterans talk about their work here at Northwell, they always mention teamwork and how individuals don't succeed by themselves.
Over Memorial Day weekend in New York City, we held a first-of-its-kind event honoring military service, called Side By Side: A Celebration of Service™. It was the pinnacle event during NYC Fleet Week, and featured a day and evening full of musical performances, military exhibits, inspirational conversation and other activities that attracted more than 25,000 people to Rockefeller Center, as well as 5,000 people — including 500 veterans and their families who were given free tickets — to Radio City Music Hall for a benefit concert featuring the rock band Imagine Dragons.
We were honored to stand with those who have given so much of themselves to this great nation. What Northwell can give our veterans will never exceed what they have given us. But it's my duty to try, and the same holds true for leaders at every health system.
Michael Dowling is president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health care provider and employer.
This op-ed appeared in Becker's Hospital Review.