Salary survey says Modesto RNs are nation's 2nd-highest earners

kcarlson@modbee.comAugust 13, 2013 

    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
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— Who says you have to leave town to earn top pay and have a stimulating career?

According to a salary survey, registered nurses in Modesto earn the second-highest pay in the nation when the local cost of living is factored into the equation.

The research revealed that $100,780 was the average annual pay for registered nurses in Modesto, where the annual cost of living is $67,380 for a family of three. That means 67 percent of a nurse's income goes to housing, food and other monthly bills, leaving plenty of extra cash for fun and investing in a child's education.

The Vallejo-Fairfield area has the nation's top pay for nurses at $119,000 a year, said the survey, which found that all of the top 10 cities for nurses' pay are in California.

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The survey was not produced by a well-known research institute but was done by, an online service that helps young nurses practice for board exams. The company said it released its findings to show a good nursing job can support a family without a second income.

The salary information came from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Council for Community and Economic Research, Forbes and the Economic Research Institute.

Stockton is seventh on the list for nurses' pay, and the Sacramento area is sixth.

With average salaries at $94,120 a year, nurses' pay in California is the second-highest in the nation when the state's high cost of living is considered. Nevada is highest, with average annual salaries of $77,870 and a $64,592 cost of living.

A spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association was not familiar with the survey but said the numbers were close to the industry group's own salary data.

A surprise to some

Some local nurses said they were surprised to see Modesto ranked so high.

Lisa Hull, a 27-year nursing veteran, said six-figure pay is most common at Modesto hospitals that are unionized, such as Doctors Medical Center and Kaiser Modesto Medical Center.

She said she formerly worked at Doctors, where nurses earn generous pay and "the work is very, very difficult."

"Those might be the salaries of nurses who have 15 to 20-plus years of experience," said Hull, a charge nurse at Central Valley Specialty Hospital in Modesto. She said entry-level pay for RNs is usually above $30 an hour at acute-care hospitals.

Nurses get to the higher pay levels by gaining skills to work in intensive care, surgery and other specialized areas, but the work is far more challenging, she said.

Laura Cole, who completed the Merced College nursing program last year, said she's not earning close to the average and it wasn't easy finding work in the current labor market.

"It is difficult to find a job right now with the economy when you want to work for an acute facility," Cole said.

Jan Emerson of the California Hospital Association said the average pay for registered nurses statewide is about $100,000 a year and is $135,000 in the Bay Area, according to the association's data. There are several reasons for the lucrative pay, including strong labor unions and laws that require hospitals to meet nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, she said.

"Nurses in California are very well paid, as they should be," Emerson said. "California is the only state with nurse-to-patient ratios, but that comes with a price. When everyone talks about the rising cost of health care, labor is the biggest component for hospitals for those rising costs."

A Modesto-area nursing veteran said the salaries for nurses were driven higher after Kaiser Permanente opened its hospital here in 2008. Kaiser nurses in the San Joaquin Valley earned less than their Bay Area peers, but that changed a few years ago with a new contract negotiated by the California Nurses Association.

"Kaiser has concertedly raised the salaries in Modesto and Manteca so they are equal with what they pay nurses in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is much higher," said Carol Martella, a nurse for 47 years and an operating room manager for Kaiser. "The rest of the hospitals in Modesto didn't want to lose their nurses, so they raised their salary scales."

Carin Sarkis, a spokeswoman for Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, said she wasn't aware of the salary survey and was hesitant to comment. The California Nurses Association said it didn't have anyone available Tuesday to discuss the survey.

Hull said she has no regrets about choosing a nursing career. In addition to the generous compensation, there are many opportunities for education and training so that employees can climb the ladder.

"You are not held to a single job experience. Nurses can choose options other than direct patient care," Hull said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or (209) 578-2321.


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