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Lab salaries and benefits: are they keeping pace? Discontent with management compensation has eased a bit, but many supervisors worry about their low paid staffs, MLO's latest survey finds.

Lab salaries and benefits: Are they keeping pace?

Members of laboratory management have grown more satisfied with their pay over the last five years. Although many would like better compensation, they don't complain as much as they used to that raises are lagging behind inflation. They are more concerned about hard-working employees who often receive inadequate pay.

This good and bad salary outlook emerged from a nationwide MLO survey of laboratory administrators and supervisors. Of 565 questionnaires sent to members of our Professional Advisory Panel, 374 were returned, for a strong 66 per cent response rate.

The environment has changed significantly from the time of MLO's last salary survey, five years ago. Inflation was much higher then, and managers grumbled a lot more about erosion of income. On the other hand, DRGs were not a factor in our earlier survey. Introduced nationally in 1983, prospective payment now appears to have mixed effects on salaries--holding down pay at a number of hospitals while spurring (or at least not blocking) decent increases at others.

Part I of this special report will cover salary levels by type of institution and region, how management personnel rate their own pay, policy regarding raises, and the adequacy of benefits. In Part II, we will look at the impact of budget problems on salaries, and the serious effects of salary trends on lab employees.

Starting annual salaries average about $15,100 for laboratory technicians (up $2,200 or 17 per cent from MLO's 1981 survey), $19,300 for certified technologists (up $3,600 or 23 per cent), $23,700 for supervisors (up $4,800 or 25 per cent), $27,000 for chief technologists (up $4,900 or 22 per cent), $31,700 for laboratory managers (up $6,200 or 24 per cent), and $49,900 for laboratory directors (no comparable figure available).

Medium-size (200 to 399 beds) and larger hospitals continue to pay more than smaller institutions. Regionally, the West still offers the highest average starting salary in most job categories, and the South the lowest. Trading the positions they held five years ago are the East, currently in second, and the Midwest, a close third. See Table I for specific salary levels.

The proportion of management personnel who rate their salaries adequate or better, in light of their education and experience, increased from five years ago: 44 per cent now versus 37 per cent then. As Table II also shows, another 32 per cent rate their present salaries somewhat adequate, compared with 40 per cent in 1981, and 24 per cent deem their salaries inadequate, about the same as in 1981.

Panelists from independent and group practice laboratories were to a moderate extent more satisfied with their salaries than those from hospital labs. And panelists at medium and larger hospitals were more satisfied than those from smaller hospitals.

Susan A. Frost, administrative director of laboratories at 150-bed Community General Hospital, Sterling, Ill., is one small-hospital laboratorian who finds her salary "very adequate." She says: "We're a city hospital in a fairly small community, but we have been incredibly busy for the last two years. Every year, we exceed budget projections for volume and revenue (at least 25 per cent of the laboratory volume is outpatient). Our administration feels a large amount of the credit goes to employees and that they should be rewarded accordingly."

At 288-bed St. Mary's Hospital in Enid, Okla., attrition has reduced the size of the laboratory staff. Employees are working harder, but Tom Armstrong, manager of laboratory services, points out that they are paid accordingly: "Our administration has expressed the feeling that they would rather have excellent productivity and pay for it than have a lot of mediocre people doing mediocre jobs and getting mediocre salaries."

Among the dissatisfied, a panelist at a small hospital in Arizona says, "As a head of household, I find it very difficult to maintain any semblance of the standard of living I would like. I am continuing my management studies because I hope I can climb the ladder."

"Originally, I went into this profession to help others, but I also have a family to feed," says a laboratory manager at a large hospital in the South. "Many of my younger colleagues have totally changed fields, getting into sales, nursing, administration, infection control, and so on. If I didn't have 20 years invested, I would change, too. One thing I am doing is speculating in real estate."

A "pink collar ghetto" is what another lab manager, at a medium-size hospital in Florida, calls the laboratory field. "It is female-dominated," she says, "so salaries have been kept low because 'women don't need as much money as men.' This greatly distresses many male and female lab employees; they can't afford to stay in a field they love. My spouse's academic credentials are similar to mine, and he makes twice as much in another industry."

We asked panelists how their salaries compared with those of other laboratorians in the same area holding a similar job. Respondents from independent and group practice laboratories rated their salaries higher more often than hospital lab respondents did--22 per cent versus 14 per cent (see Table III). A large proportion of panelists from smaller hospitals, 46 per cent, said their salaries are lower; 11 per cent said higher; 29 per cent, about the same; and 14 per cent did not know.

Comparing their salaries with those of managers in other departments of the same institutions, 12 per cent of the panelists said they make more than their counterparts, 43 per cent said they're paid about the same, 30 per cent said they make less, and 15 per cent didn't know. In the widest departure from the averages, 43 per cent of the panelists in larger hospitals said their salaries are lower than those of maangers in other departments.

Some annual salary data from other fields may be illuminating. Note, however, that the following amounts are not strictly comparable with the pay levels shown in Table I, which are averages of starting lab salaries at the end of 1986.

Nurses working in acute care hospitals averaged $25,200 in 1985, according to a survey conducted by RN, a sister publication of MLO.

Police officers started at an average of $18,000 in 1984, according to a survey by the International Personnel Management Association. Average starting pay for police and detective sergeants was $22,700.

Public elementary school teachers averaged $23,092 in 1984-85, and public secondary school teachers averaged $24,276, according to the National Education Association.

Base pay for beginning full-time mail carriers and postal clerks was $18,532 in early 1985, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. The scale rose to a maximum of $25,117 after 10-1/2 years.

Beginning flight attendants earned an average of $13,000 in 1984, while experienced flight attendants averaged $23,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The average laboratory salary increase in the last 12 months amounted to 5.2 per cent. Raises were slightly higher at independent and group practice laboratories and at larger hospital labs than at smaller and medium-size hospital labs. Table IV gives the breakdown.

These increases outpaced the nation's inflation rate, which was about 4 per cent last year and 3.8 per cent in 1985. (The outlook for 1987 is 3 to 4 per cent.) For 17 per cent of the panelists, raises exceeded the inflation rate; for 33 per cent, raises kept up with inflation; and for 50 per cent, raises fell behind inflation.

Five years ago, laboratory salaries increased by a hefty 9.1 per cent on average, but inflation was much more formidable--the U.S. had just begun pulling free from double-digit expansion of the Consumer Price Index. So in 1981, three-quarters of the panelists said their salaries had not kept pace with inflation, and only 6 per cent said their raises exceeded inflation.

Salaries are adjusted annually 90 per cent of the panelists' laboratories. Perhaps we should say they used to be adjusted that often. Actually, 10 per cent of the panelists haven't had a raise in more than a year, and another 7 per cent haven't had one in two or more years.

In some cases, salary freezes and even cuts have taken place. A laboratory chief at a small rural hospital in the Midwest reports that her last raise was approximately 3 per cent in 1985. With that increase, she just reached the minimum starting pay for a bench technologist in her state. Then last March, due to financial problems, her hospital's board decided to cut salaries by 7.1 per cent. At another small Midwest hospital lab, all wages were frozen for two years, and employees took a 10 per cent reduction in hours.

Several panelists mention that they are stalled at the top of a pay grade. That doesn't happen at 560-bed Good Samaritan Hospital and Health Center, Dayton, Ohio, which reevaluates salary scales annually. "The basic idea is to keep our salaries competitive with the outside market so that we don't lose good people," Shirley A. Pohl, managing director of the laboratory, says. "As long as we are doing well financially, as we have been for years, we will reevaluate the scales every year."

At a small hospital in Illinois, employees at the top of thier pay grade for more than a year receive a merit bonus tied to a performance evaluation--if the hospital has enjoyed a profitable year. At another Illinois hospital, merit raises case once an employee reaches the maximum salary in a grade, but cost of living increases continue, and the employee also receives an extra vacation day or the equivalent in cash if desired.

Apart from providing regular, simple increases in salary, 45 per cent of the surveyed labs offer merit raises (off slightly from 47 per cent five years ago); 37 per cent, cost of living adjustments (down from 55 per cent); and 16 per cent, bonuses (up from 11 per cent). Thirty-five per cent of the independent labs pay bonuses, compared with 11 per cent of the hospital labs.

A number of labs combine different ways to boost pay. At a small hospital in the Pacific Northwest, staff members receive an annual 1 per cent increment for their first five years of employment, in addition to hospitalwide pay increases that lately have been running at 3 to 5 per cent. A 120-bed hospital in Louisiana takes a similar approach. It raises pay 2 per cent annually for the first five years, on top of merit increases.

In Columbus, Ohio, 313-bed Children's Hospital makes periodic adjustments to pay grades based upon market conditions, according to Harold J. Cannon Jr., microbiology section chief. Employees then receive the percentage increase allocated to thier pay grade. Employees and supervisors are also eligible to receive merit raises.

Good Samaritan's Shirley Pohl describes a merit program that divides each job classification into "quartiles" defined by maximum pay amounts. At entry level, the increases are 7 per cent for "meets expectations," 9 per cent for "exceeds expectations," and 11 per cent for "far exceeds expectations." In the second quartile, the increases drop to 5, 7, and 9 per cent, and in the last two quartiles, they fall even further. Although the percentage increases taper downward the higher one rises, good or excellent performance still fetches a healthy increase. By the time an employee reaches the fourth quartile, he or she should meet the criteria for at least "exceeds expectations," Pohl notes.

Thirty-five per cent of the panelists have asked for a raise some time in the past, and in 61 per cent of the cases, they were granted.

Table V summarizes benefits offered by the surveyed laboratories and shows how many panelists rate them adequate. Paid vacation, sick leave, and medical insurance are universal, and life insurance and a pension plan are offered by 9 out of 10 labs. Most labs also provide maternity leave, paid expenses for seminars and workshops, paid tuition, and a dental plan. In 1981, half the labs had dental insurance; now it's 71 per cent.

Most benefits get high marks from laboratorians. The leading candidates for improvement are paid seminar/workshop expenses, rated adequate by only 56 per cent of the panelists; pension plans, 61 per cent; paid tuition, 66 per cent; and dental plans, 69 per cent.

What benefits do panelists most want added to their present benefit packages? Seventeen per cent would like a dental plan; 11 per cent, paid tuition; 10 per cent, a pension plan, 9 per cent, child day care; 8 per cent, paid professional membership dues; and 8 per cent, paid seminar/workshop expenses.

Some respondents expressed a desire for flexible benefits. Susan Stewart, blood bank supervisor at 796-bed Harper Hospital in Detroit, describes how such a program works in her institution. Employees receive a certain number of benefit dollars that they can spend on anything from health and life insurance to dental and eye care plans. Health insurance is the only mandatory item, but a variety of options are offered, including enrollment in one of several different health maintenance organizations.

Harper Hospital employees have a choice of being off on their birthday or Martin Luther King Day. They also can be off on the anniversary of their date of hire. If they choose instead to work on these days, they get extra dollars to spend for other benefits.

Nearly a quarter of the panelists rate maternity leave as their least important benefit. Fourteen per cent say life insurance matters least to them; 11 per cent, paid uniforms; 8 per cent, paid tuition; 7 per cent, paid parking; and 5 per cent, child day care.

That's the current status of compensation and benefits in the laboratory field. In Part II of this report, which follows, we will discuss the impact of budget restrictions on salaries and employees.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Part 1
Author:Benezra, Nat
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jan 1, 1987
Previous Article:CAP offers voluntary standards for nontraditional test sites.
Next Article:Lab salaries and benefits: dissatisfaction in the ranks; salary freezes and other budget curbs are driving employees to look for new jobs.

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