Pay raises make sense at Seattle Children’s

Retaining nurses through meaningful wage increases makes more financial sense than paying travel nurse wages and offering hiring bonuses.

Families throughout the Pacific Northwest rely on Seattle Children’s to keep their children healthy and safe. Seattle Children’s ranks among the top 50 children’s hospitals in the country, and among the Top 3 in the Pacific region (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington), according to U.S. News & World Report. The nurses and other hospital staff that have committed their lives to taking care of the region’s children are paramount in fulfilling this mission.

However, according to a recent WSNA report, the growing nurse vacancy rate is making the hospital’s mission more challenging. The vacancy rate went from 5% as of Dec. 28, 2020, to 19% as of Jan 31, 2022, according to Seattle Children’s data.

Seattle Children’s Hospital vacancy rate


Seattle Children’s is now short approximately 395 permanent nurses, which is concerning.

Like many hospitals with a staffing crisis, Seattle Children’s has responded by increasing its reliance on travel RNs—nurses who work on short term contracts away from home at significantly higher wage rates. The hospital also offers newly hired nurses hiring bonuses ($10,000-$20,000) while providing nothing to retain experienced nurses.

Given the cost of finding new nurses and paying travel nurse wages, retaining nurses through meaningful wage increases makes more financial sense. An investment in the permanent staff nurses—local residents who have made long-term commitments to the region’s children—is both an ethical and financially prudent decision.

Here’s a look why:

Travel nurses

Seattle Children’s Hospital spent $52 million on travel nurses over the past two and-a-quarter years; $30 million in the last two quarters alone, according to information released by the hospital.

While the rate for travel nurses varies, UW Medicine cited the average rate to be about $174 an hour (including agency fees), according to a fiscal note released Feb. 25, 2022, for HB 1868. The average wage for permanent nurses at Seattle Children’s is less one-third of what a travel nurse costs the hospital.

To put the cost of travel nurses in perspective, if Seattle Children’s gave every permanent nurse a 44% raise, it would still not match the projected annual expense for travel nurses ($59 million).

220628 child travel nurse expense graph
SCH’s travel nurse expense averaged $3.2 million per quarter from the beginning of 2020 through 2021 Q3. In 2021 Q4 and 2022 Q1 this expense rose sharply to $12.2 million and $17.3 million respectively. To illustrate this steep increase, SCH spent $15 million more on travel RNs in the first three months of 2022 than the same period in 2021.

Invest in the community

Nurses across the country have been retiring early or leaving the profession due to burnout after two years of providing care during a pandemic, and many others are choosing to exercise their market power and find jobs at higher-paying hospitals.

At Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, for example, entry -level nurses make $78 an hour, more than twice as much as the $36 an hour they earn at Seattle Children’s. Seattle Children’s nurses also have the option to take their own lucrative travel assignments both in local hospitals and out of state where they can make upwards of $150 per hour.

"Higher wages at SCH translate to an investment in staff, an investment in our communities, and an investment in our patients,” WSNA wrote in its latest bargaining update.

220630 child wage comparison
*From University of Washington Fiscal Note regarding HB 1868. Rate includes agency fees, which do not go to nurses.