Pay increases lag for CCU nurses compared to others

Cutbacks, mergers, talent-drain blamed for low rise

A serious crunch in the supply of registered nurses (RNs) nationally is pushing up salaries and benefits. But bedside nurses in certain specialties such as critical care are not seeing pay increases as high as those on a hospital’s general medical floors, according to recent surveys.

In fact, overall nationwide salary increases for RNs in fields such as critical care, emergency medicine, perinatology, and oncology have fallen since 1994, according to Hospital and Healthcare Compensation Services (HHCS), an Oakland, NJ, research firm that tracks health care salaries, wages, and benefits.

The drop, when measured in terms of annual percentage increases, has been as much as half of the amount of increases in some years.

For example, "between 1997 and 1998, nurse compensation [in certain specialties] increased by about 3.13%," says Rosanne Cioffe, HHCS’s director of reports. "In 1996, the rise was 1.99%. But five years ago, the rate of increase for all nurses ranged between 4% and 5% and has remained strong ever since," Cioffe says.

One reason for the laggard showing in the CCU has been diversity. "Home care and certain specialized acute-care clinics have drained away much of the hospital industry’s nursing talent in critical care and other specialties," Cioffe says.

CCU nurse pay falls behind other categories

"Separately, these salaries tend to be lower than those that hospitals normally pay, but they figure into the data when reporting total salary increases," Cioffe says. However, much of the talent-drain has leveled off due to reimbursement problems in home care and other industries, she adds.

The pay problem appears even worse when compensation is calculated on an hourly basis. The most recent salary survey released in November by HHCS shows that both CCU and ICU nurses’ hourly pay was roughly equivalent to that of a general staff nurse.

In fact, the staff nurse’s average hourly pay exceeded that of the CCU nurse by $1.13 and was $1.11 an hour higher compared with the ICU nurse. (For a comparison table, see chart on p. 30.)

According to data published in December by Modern Healthcare magazine, average annual RN salaries stood at about $40,000, but varied by as much as $10,000 across the country. In many cases, the total amount of compensation was actually higher because many hospitals were willing to give RNs generous sign-on bonuses. The report cited the severe nurse shortage for the generous one-time pay. One hospital, cited in the report, was willing to give nurses a $5,000 bonus if hired.

Years of corporate downsizing and mergers among hospitals have kept nurse salaries relatively low, Cioffe says. The current manpower shortage "appears to be a response to those business decisions," she adds.

[Editor’s note: To obtain a copy of the 1998-1999 Hospital Salary and Benefits Report, contact: Rosanne Cioffe at Hospital and Healthcare Compensation Service, P.O. Box 375, Oakland, NJ 07436. Telephone: (201) 405-0075. Retail price of the report is $295 plus $7.50 S&H. Refer to ISSN no. 0277-2353]