Aetna raised employees' wages to a base of $16 per hour because paying them less was not fair, Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini told CNBC on Wednesday.
"Here we are a Fortune 50 company and we're about to put these people into poverty, and I just didn't think it was fair," he said during a "Squawk Box" interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
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Aetna, which ranked 57th on Fortune's list in 2014, made the announcement last week during the JPMorgan Health Care Conference. The wage and benefit hikes will impact about 5,700 workers who were making $13 to $14 per hour.
Many of those workers were single mothers who had to rely on food stamps and Medicaid because they could not afford Aetna's health-care plans, Bertolini said.
At the same time, the company is seeking to update its workforce as consumers take a greater role in health-care decision making. The company will undertake what Bertolini called an "infrastructure investment in the quality of our employees" in order to develop workers who can do more than just recite rules.
He said that did not mean Aetna would cut under-skilled workers.
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"We're going to invest in them. We're going to give them all a chance. We're going to educate them into a new way, but we needed to engage them first," he said. "That population was too worried about whether or not they could put food on the table, whether or not they could afford health insurance."
Asked what pay level would prove too expensive for the company, Bertolini responded, "We shouldn't look at it that way. We've sort of destroyed business after business in this country by looking at spreadsheets with numbers we call truth."
Instead, enterprises should consider both the hard and soft benefits that come with wage and benefit increases, including savings from lower turnover costs. Aetna spends about $120 million in expenses associated with rehiring and retraining each year, he said.
Asked whether he can persuade other CEOs to do the same, he said he is already doing so. A number of companies have asked whether Aetna has a template and formula they can follow, he said.