03/18/04 — Health Deptartment lags in nursing pay

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Health Deptartment lags in nursing pay

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 18, 2004 2:03 PM

Public health nurses are being paid about $5,000 less than those in the private sector, says Wayne County's health director. And he is concerned that his department will have difficulty filling positions.

Director James Roosen told the Board of Health on Wednesday that his office is looking at ways to adjust its budget to attract nurses.

In the last month, two registered nurses and a licensed practical nurse left the Health Department because of money, he said. He said that all three went to private doctors' offices.

The department has started a work-sharing arrangement with two nurses at Cherry Hospital to help part-time.

Dr. Michael Gooden, Board of Health member, asked if exit surveys are done when employees leave a job.

Vicky Hill, administrative officer with the Health Department, said yes.

"Eighty percent are leaving for an increase in money and benefits," she said.

Roosen said his office is looking at budgeting methods to correct the problem. A salary survey was done recently, comparing health departments in surrounding counties, areas similar to Wayne County in size of staff and budget, and private practices.

"What we found is that when we compare Wayne County to health departments in like size, we're on the low end of the scale at what we start our nurses at in terms of salary," he said.

"We're competing with the private sector. Wayne Memorial Hospital starts nurses at $36,540. We're starting ours at $32,000, so there's about a $4,500 gap."

Ms. Hill helped collect data for the survey. She said the figure for the hospital was derived from its response to the survey, given in an hourly rate. The hospital's sign-on bonuses vary from floor to floor depending on necessity and shortages, she said.

Board member Donna Edmundson said it is hard to compete with places that offer salary increases and sign-on bonuses.

"Many people don't want to move, but they may drive an extra mile for a salary increase," she said.

The nursing shortage only adds to the problem, Gooden said.

"There's just fewer people, men and women, going into it," he said.

Evelyn Coley, director of nursing with the Health Department, said that student nurses from area colleges rotate through the Health Department but that does not necessarily entice them to stay when it comes time to hire.

"If you quote a salary to most nurses, they almost laugh at you," she said, "because a new graduate can get considerably more than we offer."

Another frustration is the additional expense of training hires, which is not often calculated, she said.

"We have a lot of specialized training and it's costly," she said, "the time it takes staff to train folks, and then they leave."

Ms. Hill said one surprising finding in the survey was that other areas experienced a low turnover rate. In counties such as Craven and New Hanover, job turnover was rare.

"It just seemed like we had a lot of turnover," she said, "indicative of things these other counties aren't facing."

Roosen said there is good quality of life working with the Health Department -- benefits, regular hours. But the bottom line is that it is not able to compete on the level it needs to.

"I think we need to look at everything we have in this county," Ms. Edmundson said. "Look at our scale not just from adjoining counties but what we're competing with in our own county."

Efton Sager, the county commissioner representative on the board, said that Wayne County is not the lowest in pay, but that still doesn't solve the problem.

Roosen said that Ms. Hill is working with his staff to make adjustments to raise the scale at which nurses are hired.

"We're able to hire nurses but not as readily as we would like," he said.

"We're looking at what the total cost would be to attempt to bring the salaries close to market rate. Our goal is to try to do that without using any county dollars."