Nurse employment has dropped since the Covid-19 pandemic began, according to a study published in Health Affairs—but nurse salaries have risen.
The study's authors say these changes could have long-lasting impacts on the industry, Shannon Firth reports for MedPage Today.
Employment declines amid rising salaries
For the study, researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to compare the pre-pandemic period of October 2018 through December 2019 with the period after the pandemic began, stretching from April 2020 through June 2021.
The study found that nurse employment dropped overall during the pandemic, with nurse assistants seeing a 10% drop in employment, licensed practical nurses seeing a 20% drop, and RNs seeing a 1% drop.
Although the decline in RN employment was slight, it represented a sharp departure from the pre-pandemic trend, according to David Auerbach, from Montana State University who was an author on the study. "We've seen the total supply of RNs has just grown year after year for a couple of decades, pretty steadily," he said. "With the onset of the pandemic, it looks like that growth really has stopped."
Further, unemployment numbers rose for all nurses in the second and third quarters of 2020, the study found. This was especially true among Asian, Black, Hispanic, and other non-white RNs and nursing assistants, who saw higher unemployment numbers than white RNs and nursing assistants, the study found.
"This corresponds to roughly 16,000 more RNs and 30,000 more NAs in racial and ethnic minority groups who were unemployed in the second quarter of 2021 than there would have been if they had had the same unemployment rate as they had pre-pandemic in 2019," the study authors wrote.
The study also found that the rate of entries into the nursing field is growing more slowly, as applicants to nursing programs grew just 1.5% in 2019-2020, compared to a 4.5% growth rate in 2018-2019.
"We've already known that there's a big wave of baby boomer RNs who were eventually going to retire, but that is probably happening more quickly than it would have otherwise, and we're not making up for it on the entry side of the labor force," Auerbach said.
However, while nurse employment numbers dropped during the pandemic, nurse salaries rose, the study found. Hourly earnings rose 9.4% among LPNs and 5.7% among nursing assistants during the pandemic. In addition, RNs saw a 2% increase in salaries.
Auerbach noted that the study's findings are "hinting in the direction" of long-term problems, especially the "quicker loss" of more experienced RNs, which Auerbach said could lead to a supply problem for the nurse workforce that could last 5 to 10 years.
And if entry into the nursing field is reduced as well, Auerbach said, the problem could persist for 10 to 20 years. (Firth, MedPage Today, 1/12)