From 235 nurses early last year, the Commonwealth Health Center is now down to just 175-a significant decline that acting nursing director Gayline Blau blames on the government's low salary for this important position.
Blau said during Friday's proclamation of CNMI Nurses Week that the current number could go down further if solutions to nurses' concerns are not found.
She admitted that the hospital is having a “huge shortage” of nursing staff and has been lacking nurses in almost all areas of operation, including labor and delivery, which is supposed to have at least eight nurses compared to just five at present.
More nurses are also needed at the intensive care unit, which ideally must have more than 12 compared to only eight right now. Another is the medical-surgical unit which requires at least 18 nurses compared to only 14 onboard.
“These are just some of the areas where we are lacking the right number of nurses onboard. Besides nurses, the hospital is also lacking midwives as well as registered nurses in certain clinics,” Blau told Saipan Tribune.
To be fully staffed, Blau believes the Commonwealth Health Center needs over 230 nurses.
Most of the time, CHC loses its nurses to private clinics, which offer attractive compensation and benefits, she said.
She admitted that delayed housing benefits for employees who were hired from off-island, the low salary, and the low-morale work environment discourage nurses from staying on. This is on top of immigration issue that bar CHC from hiring non-U.S. nurses and employees.
“Many of our nurses left last year also because of the financial crisis of the government. When they left, we didn't fill many positions because those FTEs were zeroed out,” said Blau, adding that health officials know about this issue but can't do anything to add more nurses due to the lack of funds.
At present, CHC nurses earn $33,000 to $40,000 per annum on average; the maximum salary could go up to over $50,000, on top of overtime pay and fringe benefits.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual wages of registered nurses in May 2008 were $62,450. The middle 50 percent earned between $51,640 and $76,570. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $43,410, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $92,240.
Blau also disclosed that nurses are disappointed with the no-holiday pay and limitations on overtime hours, which contribute to their low morale.
Blau believes that until immigration and salary issues are addressed, CHC will continue to struggle to get the needed workforce.
Saipan Tribune learned that about 85 percent of hospital nurses are nonresidents.