WASHINGTON — Nurses — those indispensable health care workers in desperately short supply nationwide — are streaming into California, a striking contrast to the recent flight of thousands of frustrated residents to other parts of the country.
And in many ways, what’s drawing them to the state is not so different from why others are leaving, namely, the high cost of living and progressive policies.
California’s famously expensive lifestyle has driven away many residents in search of cheaper housing and lower taxes. But for highly sought nurses, that’s translated into the biggest salaries in the nation.
Registered nurses in California, on average, make more than $133,000 a year, 50% more than nationwide, according to federal labor data.
The top 10 U.S. metro areas for nurse pay are all in California, with the Bay Area leading the way with an average annual salary of almost $165,000 and nearby areas not far behind.
The state’s liberal policies, regulations, strong unions and generous health care systems — all frequent targets of conservatives at the national level — have also played a role in helping California combat a nursing shortage that plagues most of the nation, particularly after the pandemic.
California is the only state to mandate minimum nurse staffing levels at hospitals. Experts say those nurse-to-patient ratios, for every hospital department, have helped reduce the increasingly heavy workloads that are driving many to quit or retire early.
In critical care units and labor and delivery, state law requires at least one nurse for every two patients. It’s one nurse per four patients in pediatrics, and one-to-five for the general medical surgical floor.
“What a difference the mandate makes,” said Lynsey Kwon, a registered nurse who recently moved to California.
After graduating from a Virginia nursing school in 2019, she went to work at a public hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia. While the hospital’s internal policy was to have one nurse for every three stroke patients, the reality was, more often than not, she cared for four patients, and sometimes five at the same time, she said. COVID-19 made things worse.
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