Amid a nationwide staffing shortage, rising demand for nurses has led hospitals to increase salaries and other benefits to attract and retain workers, Melanie Evans reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Hospitals increase salaries, benefits to keep up with nursing demand
Hospitals across the country have been struggling amid staffing shortages, particularly of nurses, Evans reports. According to health care consultancy Premier, nurse turnover rates have increased to around 22% this year, up from the annual rate of about 18% in 2019.
“We are employing more nurses now than we ever have, and we also have more vacancies than we ever had,” said Greg Till, chief people officer at Providence Health & Services.
To retain their current nurses and attract new staff, many hospitals have increased their nurses’ salaries to remain competitive in the job market, Evans reports.
For example, HCA Healthcare, one of the largest hospital chains in the country, said it increased nurse pay this year to keep up with Covid-19 surges and compete with rivals also trying to fill vacant positions.
Similarly, Jefferson Health in May raised salaries for its nearly 10,000 nurses by 10% after the system discovered that rivals had increased their compensation. “The circumstances required it,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, Jefferson’s chief nurse executive.
In addition, Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar, Mo., this month raised its nurses’ salaries by up to 5% after rivals in other nearby cities increased their workers’ wages. Sarah Hanak, Citizen Memorial’s CNO, said the hospital also increased the hourly wages of nurses working overnight shifts by around 15% to ensure sufficient staffing for those shifts.
“We were forced to,” Hanak said. “We absolutely have to stay competitive.”
Overall, the average annual salary for RNs, not including bonus pay, grew to $81,376, according to Premier—a 4% increase across the first nine months of the year. This is larger than the 3.3% increase in the average annual nurse salary for 2020 and the 2.6% increase in 2019, Evans writes.
In addition to salary increases, some organizations, such as Providence, are also offering other benefits to attract and retain nurses, such as more time off, greater schedule flexibility, and new career development opportunities. Many hospitals are also hiring new graduates to work in specialized roles in ORs and other areas, allowing them to advance their careers more quickly than they would have before.
Overall, this rising demand for nurses has allowed those entering the workforce to negotiate higher salaries, more flexible working hours, and other benefits, Evans writes.
“I think you get to write your ticket,” said Tessa Johnson, president of the North Dakota Nurses Association.
Nurse compensation increases were inevitable—here’s why
It was inevitable that we would get to this point: baseline nurse compensation on a clear upward trajectory. Inevitable because this boils down to laws of supply and demand. Amid a clear nursing shortage, organizations are being forced to raise baseline compensation to compete for increasingly scarce qualified nurses. This is true in nearly every market, even for those considered to be ‘destination employers.’
If anything, what’s most surprising in the data from Premier is the moderated increase of around 4%. From a worker’s perspective, that’s not even covering cost of living increases due to inflation. However, amid this new data, it’s important to keep two things in mind:
Two considerations for health care leaders
- New data only captures baseline compensation.Differentials—which organizations must standardize and expand across shifts, specialties, and even settings—plus overtime put baseline compensation much higher. Not to mention lucrative sign-on bonuses, that members tell us are increasingly table stakes in their markets. In general, we don’t recommend this type of incentive that does nothing for retention. You’re better off investing those resources in baseline compensation as well as beefing up your RN bonus plan to incentivize retention.
- There is a new floor for wages (and it’s only going up from here).
Open questions (and important indicators) we are assessing
- What happens to wages for entry-level clinical roles? As the shortage of RNs persists, organizations will need to make a shift to team-based models of care, and those are only possible with a stable workforce of entry-level personnel. Right now, that part of the health care workforce is anything but stable. When you consider their work and their wages in comparison to out-of-industry players that pay the same or better, that’s a clear area where investment is required.
- Will the share of nurses working permanently with travel agencies return to pre-pandemic levels? That’s to say, what will those RNs who experienced the traveler lifestyle and pay value more moving forward: the flexibility and premium pay or stability of permanent employment? Even if this number stabilizes a couple percentage points above pre-pandemic levels, that will aggravate provider’s sense of shortage.
The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association teamed up to release a new “Forever Grateful” TV and digital ad campaign on Monday to thank health care workers.
Why it matters: The campaign comes in the face of record levels of reported health care worker burnout tied, in part, to the prolonged emergency response to COVID-19.
- The AHA also released a new video thanking health care professionals working in America’s hospitals and health systems for their work.
Operating cash flow margins for nonprofit hospitals fell to a median 7% in 2020.
A shortage of nurses and other workers will continue to erode hospital financial performance into 2022, according to a new Healthcare Quarterly report from Moody’s.
A rise in COVID-19 cases in various regions of the United States has contributed to a wave of nurses, often burned out, resigning to take care of family, to work in less acute healthcare settings such as ambulatory care or to pursue higher-paying contract opportunities, such as becoming a travel nurse.
Hospitals are also having difficulty finding other types of healthcare workers, such as respiratory therapists and imaging technicians, as well as nonclinical workers in areas such as dietary, housekeeping and environmental services.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The report holds no surprises for hospital executives, who already know the financial affect labor shortages are having on revenue. But Moody’s confirms projections that rising costs will make it difficult for hospitals to rebuild margins to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Labor shortages are driving up costs and also may be limiting the number of lucrative elective procedures, resulting in lost revenue. Not-for-profit hospitals saw operating cash flow margins fall to a median 7% in 2020, from 8.3% in the three prior years, according to Moody’s median data.
Hospitals using contract nurses report that hourly wages are very high, in some cases higher now with the Delta variant than during earlier COVID-19 surges. Many hospitals and health systems have also increased minimum wages for nonclinical workers and are finding they must compete with other service sectors, such as the food industry, to attract nonclinical staff.
Given their substantial reliance on government reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, most healthcare providers maintain limited pricing flexibility to offset the costs of higher wages. While there are opportunities for more lucrative commercial insurance contracts, rates are the subject of intense negotiations, limiting providers’ pricing power, Moody’s said.
Providers with strong liquidity and diversified cash flow will remain better positioned to manage stress from cost constraints. Hospitals are taking steps to retain nurses, including developing “float pools” of nurses who can work in multiple departments, increasing retention and merit pay, and expanding healthcare benefits such as mental health and child care services.
LifeBridge Health, a not-for-profit health system operating in Baltimore and Carroll County, Maryland, paid its nursing staff retention bonuses in December 2020 as the labor market tightened. To recruit nurses, many systems are offering signing bonuses in exchange for multi-year work commitments as well as scholarship and loan forgiveness programs with local nursing schools.
While these strategies will ease the effect of labor shortages over the long term, they will cause hospitals’ costs to increase in 2022 as salaries and benefits typically represent at least half of a hospital’s expenses. Labor shortages will also likely spark an increase in unionization efforts or lead to more difficult negotiations between unions and providers, potentially increasing costs via new contracts.
THE LARGER TREND
The quarterly report focused on the impact of labor shortages and cost pressures for various sectors, including hospitals, insurers, pharmaceuticals, healthcare services such as staffing firms and health insurers.
Health insurers are less affected by labor shortages, wage pressure and potentially burgeoning inflation than many other healthcare sectors, Moody’s said. Insurers reset premiums each year, which helps them to offset inflation. But if the government does not keep up with payment, providers will look to insurers to make up the shortfall.
Large physician staffing companies, such as Envision Healthcare Corporation and Team Health Holdings, will experience pressure on their profitability as it becomes harder and more expensive to fill open positions as burnout and retirements decrease the number of doctors available to work.
Travel nurse staffing has higher profit margin resilience compared to physician staffing, the report said.
For real estate investment trusts, worker shortages are slowing net operating income growth for REITs to invest in senior housing and skilled nursing facilities.
Growth in salaries and benefits has exceeded hospitals’ expense growth, a trend likely to continue for the remainder of 2021 and into 2022, Moody’s said in an earlier October report.
In one bright spot in the earlier report, Moody’s noted recent rises in nursing school enrollment indicating a more robust long-term staffing pipeline. However, the aging population, combined with a healthcare workforce that may be retiring from their jobs or quitting due to burnout, represent long-term healthcare staffing challenges nationwide.
As the pandemic rages on, hospitals across the country are experiencing significant labor shortages for critical clinical roles. In the graphic above, we highlight the shortage of nursing talent, perhaps the most sought-after role for which health systems are struggling to hire.
Even before the current COVID surge, many nurses reported feeling dissatisfied or feeling burned out. In a May 2021 survey, more than one in five nurses said they were considering leaving their current jobs, citing insufficient staffing, workload, and the emotional toll of the work. Many health systems are offering lucrative incentives, such as five-figure signing bonuses, to fill immediate critical care needs, and to address the growing backlog of patients returning for delayed care.
As more nurses quit or retire from their permanent positions, health systems are being forced to fill workforce gaps by luring temporary talent at much higher costs (now cresting $8K a week to fund a single travel nurse in some parts of the country). Travel nurse demand reached an all-time high in August, up almost 40 percent from the previous peak in December 2020. As they struggle to fill essential openings, hospital leaders must also focus on keeping the current nursing staff engaged—a challenge that only gets harder as staff nurses compare their salaries to those paid to the temporary colleagues working alongside them.