Lab salaries: still too low, but rising.
There were some hopeful signs, however, in the results of our latest survey on laboratory salaries and benefits. The national shortage of lab personnel has added extra dollars to salary offers at many sites, and more than half of the 224 survey respondents-laboratory administrators and supervisors on MLO's Professional Advisory Panel-predict significant salary improvement in the next five years.
Part I of this special report will cover current average salary levels by type of institution and region, how management personnel rate their own pay, policy regarding raises and comparable pay for comparable work, the effect of the staffing shortage on salaries, and the adequacy of benefits. In Part 11, we will look at the the impact of budget problems on salaries, the effects of salary trends on lab employees, and the prospects for better salaries.
As Table I shows, starting annual salaries average about $15,800 for laboratory technicians (up $700 or 4.6 per cent from MLO's last salary survey at the end of 1986), $20,200 for medical technologists (up $900 or 4.7 per cent), $24,900 for supervisors (up $ 1 ,200 or 5 . I per cent) , $28,000 for chief technologists (up $1,000 or 3.3 per cent), and $34,400 for laboratory managers (up $2,700 or 8.5 per cent).
Medium-size (200 to 399 beds) and larger hospitals continue to pay more than smaller institutions. Regionally, the West still offers the highest average start-ing salary in most job categories, and the South offers the lowest starting salary. The East, remaining in second place, has closed much of the gap separating it from the West, thanks to increases since 1986 ranging from 9.5 per cent for technicians and lab managers to 12.8 per cent for technologists).
The proportion of management personnel who rated their salaries adequate or better, in light of their education and experience, decreased from two years ago: 33 per cent now versus 44 per cent then. As Table 11 also shows, 34 per cent rate their present salaries somewhat adequate, and 33 per cent say their salaries are inadequate.
For all their gains in recent years, panelists at Eastern laboratories registered the greatest degree of dissatisfaction. Nearly three-quarters deemed their salaries either inadequate (42 per cent) or only somewhat adequate (31 per cent). Close behind were panelists in the South, at 70 per cent for the two lowest rating levels, followed by those in the Midwest, at 65 per cent. Panelists in the West were least dissatisfied (or most satisfied): In something like neat bell-curve distribution, 19 per cent said their salaries were inadequate; 31 per cent, somewhat adequate; 31 per cent adequate; and 19 per cent very adequate.
Survey respondents at hospitals with 400 or more beds were generally more satisfied with their salaries than those in smaller hospitals or at independent and group practice laboratories.
We asked panelists how their salaries compared with those of managers with similar training and responsibilities in other departments of the same institution. Forty-four per cent said their salaries were lower; 32 per cent said their salaries were about the same; and 10 per cent said their salaries were higher; 14 per cent did not know (Table III). In line with their deeper degree of dissatisfaction, more respondents from the East than from anywhere else pegged their salaries lower than the salaries of managers in other departments.
A number of hospital -based respondents were irritated over nursing's higher pay levels at a time when the lab field seems to have as serious a shortage of personnel. A little more than a year ago, a survey by MLO's sister publication, RN, disclosed average annual income of $26,000 for acute care nurses.
One lab manager in a Federal facility complained: "The Federal Civil Service system recognizes the nursing shortage with a special incentive pay scale, but *It doesn't notice that there is a similar shortage of laboratory professionals. One-third of the professional lab positions in our area are vacant at present."
The lab manager at a mid-size Rhode Island hospital said nurses there, many of them graduates of a two-year college program, are rated a grade 10 while the lab's MT program graduates (four years of college plus a one-year internship) are a grade 9 and paid less.
"The emphasis is on nursing, and the laboratory is a poor stepchild," a microbiologist in a Michigan hospital said.
And the manager of a small Louisiana hospital laboratory said: "College-degreed technologists are tired of feeling second class to nurses in salaries and benefits. In our hospital, technologists work longer hours, often shorthanded or alone, but nurses keep getting salary increases and more benefits because of their shortage."
Salary increases for laboratory managers and supervisors averaged 6 per cent in the last 12 months-5 per cent at hospital laboratories and 8 per cent at independent and group practice labs (Table IV). This exceeded the inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index, which rose 4.4 per cent in 1987 and 4.6 per cent through most of 1988.
Looking back over the last five years, more than half the management personnel felt their salaries had not kept pace with inflation. Twenty-six per cent said their salaries had kept pace, and 20 per cent said their salaries had exceeded the inflation rate.
Salaries increase on a regular basis at 81 per cent of the laboratories polled-usually once a year. Merit raises are offered at 61 per cent of the labs, uniform percentage increases at 44 per cent, and bonuses at 16 per cent. A lower proportion of independent and group practice labs than hospital labs provide merit pay (51 per cent versus 62 per cent), but bonuses are more common at the nonhospital labs (37 per cent versus 12 per cent).
MLO also explored the impact of staffing issues on salaries. For one thing, we asked if any technicians or comparable personnel perform the same work as technologists throughout the day at panelists' laboratories. Yes, 74 per cent said (see Table V). In such cases, do technicians get the same pay as technologists? No, they get less pay, according to 88 per cent.
At a 330-bed West Virginia hospital, medical laboratory technicians recently moved up a full salary grade-a 10 per cent climb-in recognition of their growing responsibilities. Onehalf of the lab staff consists of medical laboratory technicians.
Two-thirds of the panelists reported a significant shortage of laboratory personnel in their area (Table VI). Of these, 51 per cent said their labs are offering new personnel higher salaries than in recent years, and 34 per cent said the shortage has led to bigger raises for existing staff.
Panelists frequently mentioned additional recruitment inducements, particularly sign-on bonuses, shift and weekend wage differentials, and paid moving expenses . Other inducements include flexible scheduling and low-cost housing. A number of labs also pay finders' fees to employees who steer new personnel onto the staff.
For some open jobs, nothing seems to help. A mid-size hospital laboratory in Hawaii sweetened its offer when there were no takers for a histotechnologist's position at a salary of $20,200. "We had to go to $27,000," the laboratory director said, "and even then, there were only a few nibbles and still no takers. We have been looking for eight months."
The recruitment chase is causing pay disparities. A laboratory manager in a small Arizona hospital noted that her lab hired an experienced technologist at a higher wage rate than that of technologists who had been on the staff for as long as seven years. As a result, pay for all technologists had to be increased.
Table VII summarizes benefits offered by the surveyed laboratories and shows the percentage of panelists that rate them adequate. Paid vacation, paid sick leave, and medical insurance are furnished at practically all laboratories, and life insurance and a pension plan are benefit features at nine out of 10 laboratories. Most labs also provide maternity leave, payment for seminar and workshop expenses, paid tuition, and a dental plan.
Twenty-two per cent of the labs have flexible or cafeteria-style benefits, giving employees a choice of which they want within a maximum amount of benefit dollars. This appears to be more common in hospital laboratories than independent or group practice labs, and in the East and Midwest than the South and West.
Most benefits get high marks from laboratorians. The leading candidates for improvement are paid seminar and workshop expenses, rated adequate by only 51 per cent of the panelists; child day care, 55 per cent; dental plans, 60 per cent; pension plans, 61 per cent; eye care plans, 63 per cent; and paid tuition, 68 per cent.
Which item do panelists most want added to their present benefit package? Twenty-four per cent would like a dental plan; 19 per cent, child day care; 13 per cent, eye care; 11 per cent, a pension plan; 9 per cent, paid tuition; and 8 per cent, paid professional membership dues.
As for the existing benefit that is least important to panelists, 22 per cent mentioned matemity leave; 14 per cent, paid uniforms; 12 per cent, life insurance; 6 per cent, their dental plan; 5 per cent, child day care; 5 per cent, paid tuition; and 5 per cent, paid parking.
That's where laboratory salaries and benefitsstand today. In Part 11 of this report, which follows, we will discuss the impact of budget restrictions on salaries and employees, and the outlook for salary improvement in the next few years.