How much nurse pay is rising—and why

Travel Nurse Guaranteed Pay: The Truth - The Gypsy Nurse

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Moody’s: Rising costs will slow hospitals rebuilding margins to pre-COVID-19 levels

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/rising-costs-will-make-it-difficult-hospitals-rebuild-margins-pre-covid-levels-moodys-says

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.

RN hourly wage in 10 US metro areas

RN Salary -Registered Nurse wages and employment information

The hourly mean wage for registered nurses in the U.S. is $38.47, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest occupational employment and wage statistics survey.

Among 10 metropolitan areas with the highest employment level in registered nurses, registered nurses have the highest hourly mean wage in the Los Angeles area and the lowest in the Miami area.

Ten hourly mean wages for RNs by metropolitan area, in descending order:

1. Los Angeles: $54.38

2. Boston: $47.79

3. New York City: $45.63

4. Houston: $40.85

5. Washington, D.C.: $40.14

6. Philadelphia: $38.45

7. Dallas: $37.50

8. Chicago: $37.48

9. Detroit: $36.64

10. Miami: $34.76 

Are recent labor actions getting nursing unions what they want?

While nurses in Cook County, Illinois, struck a deal in recent days, those on a three-month-plus strike against a Tenet hospital in Massachusetts plan a protest at the chain’s Dallas headquarters.

Thousands of healthcare workers have waged strikes this summer to demand better staffing levels as the pandemic brought greater attention to what happens when a nurse must take care of more patients than they can reasonably handle.

In New York, a report from the attorney general that found nursing homes with low staffing ratings had higher fatality rates during the worst COVID-19 surges last spring helped spur legislators to pass a safe staffing law long-advocated for by the New York State Nurses Association.

While unions elsewhere face a steeper climb to win the success found in New York, through strikes and other actions, they’re attempting to get new staffing rules outlined in their employment contracts.

Most nursing strikes include demands for ratios, or limits on the number of patients a nurse can be required to care for, Rebecca Givan, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, said.

“And employers are very anxious about that because it threatens their bottom line, so often when a compromise is found, it’s something that approaches a ratio but maybe has a bit more flexibility,” Givan said.

Some have been successful, like the 1,000 Chicago-area nurses at Stroger Hospital, Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail who waged a one-day strike on June 24 after negotiating with the county over a new contract for nearly eight months.

They reached a tentative agreement shortly after the strike, stipulating the hiring of 300 nurses, including 125 newly added positions throughout the system within the next 18 months.

The deal also includes wage increases to help retain staff, ranging from 12% to 31% over the contract’s four-year term, according to National Nurses United.

Meanwhile, 700 nurses at Tenet’s St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, have been on strike for over 100 days over staffing levels. Nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association have been trying to get an actual nurse-to-patient ratio outlined for specific units in their next contract.

The two sides haven’t come close to reaching a deal yet, and some nurses will travel to Tenet’s headquarters in Dallas on Wednesday in an attempt to appeal to corporate executives, according to MNA.

At the same time, federal lawmakers wrote to Tenet CEO Ron Rittenmeyer seeking details on the chain’s use of federal coronavirus relief funds amid the strike and alongside record profits it turned last year.

The hospital denied lawmakers’ claims in the letter that Tenet used federal funds to enrich executives and shareholders rather than meet patient and staff needs, saying in a statement it strongly objects to the “mischaracterization of the facts and false allegations of noncompliance with any federal program.”

The strike is currently the longest among nurses nationally in a decade, according to the union.

A number of other major hospital chains have contracts covering their nurses expiring this summer, including for-profit HCA Healthcare and nonprofit Sutter Health.

Unionized nurses at 10 HCA hospitals in Florida have reached a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, though members still need to ratify it, according to National Nurses United. The details are still unclear.

And after joining NNU just last year, 2,000 nurses at HCA’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, ratified their first contract Saturday, which includes wage increases and the formation of a nurse-led staffing committee.

Newly-formed unions take an average of 409 days to win a first contract, according to an analysis from Bloomberg Law. In the healthcare industry, new unions take an average of 528 days to win a first contract, the longest among all sectors examined.

Across the country at Sutter’s California hospitals, disputes haven’t been so easily resolved. Healthcare workers at eight Sutter hospitals planned protests throughout July “to expose the threat to workers and patients caused by understaffing, long patient wait times and worker safety issues at Sutter facilities,” according to Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West, which represents the workers.

Similar to the ongoing Tenet hospital strike, SEIU is highlighting Sutter’s profits so far this year and the federal relief funds it received.

FTC signals nurses’ wages will become important measure in antitrust enforcement

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/ftc-signals-nurses-wages-important-measure-antitrust-enforcement-hospitals/589142/

The Federal Trade Commission is revamping a key tool in its arsenal to police competition across a plethora of industries, a development that could have direct implications for future healthcare deals.

In September, the FTC said it was expanding its retrospective merger program to consider new questions and areas of study that the bureau previously has not researched extensively.

One avenue it will zero in on is labor markets, including workers and their wages, and how mergers may ultimately affect them.

It’s an area that could be ripe for scrutinizing healthcare deals, and the FTC has already begun to use this argument to bolster its case against anticompetitive tie-ups. Prior to this new argument, the antitrust agency — in its legal challenges and research — has primarily focused on how healthcare mergers affect prices.

The retrospective program is hugely important to the FTC as it is a way to examine past mergers and produce research that can be used as evidence in legal challenges to block future anticompetitive deals or even challenge already consummated deals.

“I do suspect that healthcare is a significant concern underlying why they decided to expand this program,” Bill Horton, an attorney with Jones Walker LLP, said.

So far this year, the FTC has tried to block two proposed hospital mergers. The agency sued to stop a proposed tie-up in Philadelphia in February between Jefferson Health and Albert Einstein Healthcare Network.

More recently, the FTC is attempting to bar Methodist Le Boneheur in Memphis from buying two local hospitals from Tenet Health in a $350 million deal.

In both cases, the agency alleges the deals will end the robust competition that exists and harm consumers in the form of higher prices, including steeper insurance premiums, and diminished quality of services.

The agency has long leaned on the price argument (and its evidence) to challenge proposed transactions. However, recent actions signal the FTC will include a new argument: depressed wages, particularly those of nurses.

In a letter to Texas regulators in September, the FTC warned that if the state allowed a health system to acquire its only other competitor in rural West Texas, it would lead to limited wage growth among registered nurses as an already consolidated market compresses further.

As part of its arguments, the FTC pointed to a 2020 study that researched the effects on labor market concentration and worker outcomes.

Last year, the agency sent orders to five health insurance companies and two health systems to provide information so it could further study the affect COPAs, or Certificates of Public Advantage, have on price and quality. The FTC also noted it was planning to study the impact on wages.

FTC turned to review after string of defeats

A number of losses in the 1990s led the agency to conduct a hospital merger retrospective, Chris Garmon, a former economist with the FTC, said. Garmon has helped conduct and author retrospective reviews.

Between 1994 and 2000, there were about 900 hospital mergers by the U.S Department of Justice’s count. The bureau lost all seven of the cases they attempted to litigate in that time period, according to the DOJ.

The defendants in those cases succeeded by employing two types of defenses. The nonprofit hospitals would argue they would not charge higher prices because as nonprofits they had the best interests of the community in mind. Second, hospitals tried to argue that their markets were much larger than the FTC’s definition, and that they compete with hospitals many miles away.

Retrospective studies found evidence that undermined these claims. That’s why the studies are so important, Garmon said.

“It really is to better understand what happens after mergers,” Garmon said. It’s an evaluation exercise, given many transaction occur prospectively or before a deal is consummated. So the reviews help the FTC answer questions like: “Did we get it right? Or did we let any mergers we shouldn’t let through?”