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March 8, 2018

Hospitals offer big bonuses, free housing and tuition to recruit nurses

Five-figure signing bonuses, free housing, college tuition for employees and their children.

Hospitals and other medical facilities are getting so desperate to recruit and retain nurses they're offering all sorts of pricey perks and incentives.

"These are some of the grandiose examples we've heard from our members," said Seun Ross, director of nursing practice and work environment at the American Nurses Association. "Who knows what employers will come up with next?"

America is undergoing a massive nursing shortage. Not only are experienced nurses retiring at a rapid clip, but there aren't enough new nursing graduates to replenish the workforce, said Ross.

The nation's aging population is exacerbating the problem. The American Nurses Association estimates the U.S. will need to produce more than one million new registered nurses by 2022 to fulfill the country's health care needs.

UCHealth, which operates nine acute-care hospitals and more than 100 clinics across Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, currently has 330 openings for registered nurses. Since the nonprofit health system can't find all the nurses it needs locally, it has been seeking out candidates from other states -- and sometimes other countries.

To entice these new recruits, it has offered relocation allowances and signing bonuses of up to $10,000, said Kathy Howell, chief nursing executive for UCHealth.

UCHealth is trying to sweeten the pot in other ways, as well. It provides nurses with up to $4,000 a year to invest in continuing education. And it offers the Traveler RN program, which allows nurses to do a 13-week rotation at different UCHealth facilities.

Meanwhile, across the country, Inova Health System is offering candidates who have at least two years of critical care experience and live more than 50 miles from one of its six Washington, D.C.-area hospitals a $20,000 sign-on bonus and up to $20,000 in reimbursable relocation costs, said chief nursing officer Maureen E. Sintich. Candidates who live within 50 miles of one of Inova's hiring hospitals are offered a $10,000 signing bonus.

This fall, West Virginia's WVU Medicine, which operates eight hospitals in the state, will start offering tuition reimbursement for employees and their children.

"It's for nurses and for all of our staff who've been here for five or more years. We're also extending it for their children to fully cover their college tuition if they go to West Virginia University or partially cover tuition if they go elsewhere," said Mary Fanning, director of WVU Medicine Nursing Administration.

WVU, which is currently looking to hire 200 nurses, also offers free housing to some of its nurses as part of its commuter program. The perks, it said, are aimed at both attracting new recruits and retaining existing staff.

Lacy Russell, 24, applied for a job as an intensive care unit nurse with WVU after she learned about the commuter program from a friend.

Under the program, nurses who live 60 to 90 miles away from WVU's hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia, are offered a free place to stay. Russell, who was hired in 2016, lives an hour and 20 minutes away from the hospital. She stays at the hospital-owned lodging during her shifts Friday through Sunday.

"I save so much on gas by not having to drive back and forth," she said. "I graduated from nursing school with $30,000 in student debt. So this really helps."

She plans to work at the hospital for at least a few more years and also take advantage of the tuition reimbursement at some point so she can continue to advance her training and skills.

Bonuses and incentives may help, but hospitals have another big force working against them: The booming US economy.

Periods of economic upswing aren't necessarily good for the nursing industry, said Susan Salka, CEO of AMN Healthcare, one of nation's largest providers of medical staffing services.

"During economic downturns, nurses stay put in their jobs and attrition dips," she said. "When the economy is booming, attrition goes up. Nurses feel more comfortable pulling back on their hours or moving ahead with their retirement decision."

In two-income households, if their partner is doing well financially, some nurses feel comfortable dropping out of the workforce to take a break from a grueling job, said Salka.

The American Nurses Association's Ross worries that rich bonuses and creative perks may not go far enough to retain nurses in the long run.

"What's to stop nurses from accepting a job because of the perks and then hop to another hospital after two years because of their perks," she said.

A better approach would be to invest in improving the work environment for nurses and offering better pay, career development and hours to help make sure they don't burn out, she said.

"All it takes is for one nurse to tell her friend that where she works is a great place for these reasons and applications will come in," Ross said.

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