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Study Finds Racial Pay Disparities Among Nurses

Researchers use statistical regression analysis to spot discrimination in an unexpected profession.

When Sandra McGinnis and Jean Moore at the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the State University of New York at Albany looked at the results of a 2007 survey of close to 3,000 New York City hospital nurses, they didn’t expect to see such wide differences in pay.

Conventional wisdom suggests in a world of inequality, nursing is less unequal, McGinnis said.

“It’s pretty well known there are salary disparities by race and ethnicity in the wider work force, but because nursing has been a field that has these cyclical shortages, a lot of people have regarded it as some place where minorities can expect a more level playing field because they are so badly needed.”

The data suggested otherwise. “We found that years of experience weren’t worth as much for minority nurses than whites,” McGinnis said.

Their findings suggest that even in a city as racially diverse as New York, in a profession largely regarded as equal, there still could be inequality. If the study's findings are correct, it should send a wake-up call to health care industry leaders nationwide.

Exactly how much less those years of experience were worth for African Americans, Asians or Pacific Islanders and Hispanics can be determined through statistical regression analysis, which uses linear progression to make assumptions about a larger population.

Their results showed that minority nurses in New York City earned on average $6,000 less than white counterparts with the same level of education and experience. African-American nurses received $3,000 less because their qualifications weren’t valued as much and another $3,000 less for what researchers call human capital and their structural position in the labor market.

Put another way, minority nurses may choose to work within their own communities, which generally earn less as whole. Minority nurses, in this scenario, are working in community health centers and public hospitals rather than private institutions, but that only accounts for half the difference.

Asians and Hispanics also received around $6,000 less, on average, compared to whites, with slightly different proportions attributed to each cause.

After publishing their initial results in 2008, the researchers set out to further dissect their data and explain the difference. Their latest results were published online in January in Policy, Politics, and Nursing Practice.

McGinnis and Moore both caution against taking their findings to the bank — or a lawyer. They warn their results do not take into account overtime pay, and while the study involved 3,000 nurses, participation was voluntary.

They do say they found differences in pay based on race within the public hospital system and even among unionized nurses. But they weren’t able to identify differences within a particular hospital. Plans for a future study are in progress.

Marie Ankner, chief of nursing for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates 11 acute care hospitals within the five boroughs of New York City, said any presumption that wage differences based on race occur at her company is simply incorrect. For one thing, the nurses are unionized, which makes such differences almost impossible.

“There is no truth to discrimination or that salaries are based on their race. Certainly not in our facilities,” Ankner said. “That’s why it raises the question of additional research.”

After the work force study came out, the issue of racial pay disparities has not come up during contract negotiations, Ankner said. Both the New York State Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union local 1199 in part funded the study.

Deborah Elliot, NYSNA deputy executive officer, said the union has not addressed the issues raised in the study with hospital administrators because of limitations in the data. “We found the study interesting but understood it had certain limitations,” Elliot said.

Without hospital-specific data, it’s difficult to make a case of racial discrimination. That’s something Moore and McGinnis want to take up in future surveys. And they may look specifically at certain hospitals to pinpoint whether some nurses have simply fallen through the cracks.