Nurses to get pay hikes |

Nurses to get pay hikes

Susan Wood, Tribune staff writer

Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune Barton Memorial Hospital Registered Nurse Chris Lynds administers medicine to a patient through an IV line.

The nursing shortage appears to be giving wages a shot in the arm.

Illustrating a simple supply-and-demand equation, wages are expected to surge Jan. 1 to compensate for a growing shortage that could worsen with a higher patient-to-nurse ratio.

In the medical-surgery units, for example, California law requires no more than six patients to one nurse. While hospitals are answering the call with hiring for the new mandate, rising wages could squeeze department budgets.

Kathy Cocking, Barton Memorial Hospital’s director of hospital operations, predicts some health care facilities will go under. Barton will absorb a $320,000-a-year additional expense in salaries and benefits to abide by the law. This figure has gone up from earlier forecasts.

“We have to pay what the market dictates,” Cocking said. “This is why people complain about the cost of health care.”

The average hourly rate for nurses nationwide is $22.63. The figure could rise to $40.50, according to a study by the Journal of Health Affairs. In comparison, California’s average comes in at $33 – with the Bay Area’s rate $6 higher, the California Nursing Association reports. Barton’s average is $30 an hour. As the rate rises in California, Cocking expects South Lake Tahoe’s to go up, too.

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“I think this is a step in the right direction,” intensive care unit nurse Chris Lynds said, adding head hunters regularly send notices to recruit prospects.

Lynds, who has been in nursing for 20 years, said the wage increases may correct years of stymied salaries and better opportunities in the business field.

“Business opportunities were more lucrative – particularly for women,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition. It must be hard for hospitals to keep people.”

In a three-way partnership, Barton has teamed up with Sierra College and Lake Tahoe Community College for the state’s first online registered nursing program. It starts this spring. They idea is to keep up with a widespread nursing shortage in California and Nevada.

LTCC put up $12,000 in grant money to fund the 18-month-long program that costs $2,300 per student. Barton has received 10 applications for the program so far, Cocking reported Monday. More are being accepted. Applications may be obtained through Barton’s hospital operations office or on Sierra College’s Roseville campus.

Nevada and California have the two worst nurse-to-patient ratios in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nevada has the worst – with 520 nurses treating 100,000 patients.

“We expect salaries to have double-digit increases this coming year,” said Bill Welch, spokesman for the Nevada Hospital Association.

Welch estimates Nevada hospitals will spend $1 million in recruitment efforts. Nevada’s average hourly wage is $25.78.

“Guess where California will go to get nurses,” Welch said. “This is a dire situation.”

As Barton nurses retire, Cocking expects the hospital to need more RNs, too. The average age here is one year higher than the national average – 45.

-Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at