Underrated in America: Nurses

I worked my way through nursing school in the 70's by waiting tables at a steak house in Colorado Springs. It was great money, about $12-20 per hour, and included a free meal and drink. When I graduated, I took a job at a large hospital in Denver for $5.67 per hour. I quickly realized that I made a whole lot more money waitressing than I did cleaning up patients, lifting, dispensing medicine and sometimes saving lives.

In the last 30 years, wages have certainly gone up but the pay for nurses still remains at a ridiculous level. Starting pay for a new graduate is around $21.55 per hour and the job is so much harder now. Patients rarely stay in the hospital more than a few days even for complex surgeries and illnesses. Nurses must not only stay abreast of medical advances, they have to constantly learn new technology including bedside charting.

It hardly pays to remain in nursing. After 20 or more years, a nurse can expect her salary to only go up about $9 dollars an hour to $29.89. While health benefits are usually good, health care pensions are dismal. As one hospital executive brazenly stated to a nurse's union, "If nurses want a good retirement, they should marry a doctor."

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While physicians order the care, it is actually delivered by nurses and other healthcare professionals. The healing act of nursing is what patients value and remember. So, why don't we get more money?

Nursing has historically been a female profession with an emphasis on compassionate care and service to the community. Nurses always put the patient first; working extra shifts, overtime, short staffed, etc. This has, perhaps worked against us. As the nursing shortage intensifies in the coming years, hopefully nurses will become better organized to bargain for better wages.

Barbara Bartlein, RN, MSW, is the People Pro. For her Free e-mail newsletter, please visit: The People Pro.

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