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Nurses Deserve Cheers and Cards, But Isn’t It Time to Pay Them More, Too?

Life has changed dramatically, for everyone, everywhere, since COVID-19. This is particularly true for nurses. As a nurse in two strikingly different capacities--I work in management at a sexual and reproductive health center in New York City and also work several shifts a month in the emergency department at a New York City hospital--I’ve experienced these changes.

I get very emotional at 7pm every night when people in the neighboring buildings cheer on their balconies for frontline workers like me. Kids drop off thank you notes at our hospital. Friends send my favorite foods and hand lotion. I truly feel valued and seen. And though my colleagues and I can’t always discern each others’ facial expressions behind our personal protective equipment, we are tighter and more supportive of each other than ever before. This pandemic has made it clear who the essential workers are and how much they are valued. But another change is overdue: We need to put that awareness into action, delivering better salary, benefits, and health insurance, all with transparency, for our healthcare workers. As healthcare workers, we need to initiate our country’s larger compensation conversation.

In my professional career as a nurse and in nursing school before that, the topic of compensation has rarely come up. I recently attended a salary negotiation seminar Wager hosted to learn strategies for talking about this topic, because in nursing, there’s no framework for discussing salary. In my experience, compensation discussions don’t happen on a regular basis. Your manager, who sees the quality of the care you give, doesn’t have the authority to determine your compensation--it’s usually the domain of HR. There are no standard salary ranges for specific nursing roles or years of experience, so it’s up to each nurse to research and make a request. Also from what I’ve experienced, there has not been a compensation review paired with my annual performance review, as you might have in a corporate job. This all makes it difficult to successfully lobby for a raise.

I’ve been requesting a salary increase in my current role for more than a year, well before COVID-19 made it even more crucial that we continue to provide health services to our patients. Several years ago, I left my staff job as an ED nurse at a non-profit hospital in New York City, where I was making about $100k working the standard 13 12-hour shifts every 4 weeks, and transitioned to my current employer. I was willing to take a pay cut to $88k because the ability to have a more impactful relationship with patients appealed to me. A couple of years in, I transitioned to a different management role with a salary increase to $100k. My job is rewarding, in large part because our patients are so grateful for the services we provide and my colleagues are passionate about the quality care we give. However, I believe I deserve to make more. I’ve done my own salary research, online, and through candid salary conversations with my peers. Based on what those in equivalent roles earn, I should be earning 20 to 30 percent more. I’ve made the case for an increase on numerous occasions, but it hasn’t happened, due to a number of factors. Though it may seem ironic because I’m a healthcare worker, I can’t leave my job without considerable thought, because my health insurance is tied to it and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Health insurance should be a right for all, but especially for those working on the frontlines.

And so, what do I do while I wait to see what the future holds? I care for my patients, I support my team, and I remain positive. Whenever I’m asked by another nurse for salary advice, I share. I’m open about how much I’m earning, my experience, my responsibilities, because if you don’t share that knowledge, how will others know what they should aim for? My advice to other nurses: Don’t feel bad about sharing what you make with your peers. When people learn, they’ll discover how much they have the potential to earn, too. I hope this pandemic will inspire more people to go into the healthcare industry. We need them, desperately. But they deserve to be paid well, too.

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