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Search for Nurses in California Is Feverish

The pay is high and the come-ons are extreme as hospitals face a new staffing requirement.

November 23, 2005|Lisa Girion | Times Staff Writer

Competition to hire nurses in California is so intense that some headhunters routinely make cold calls to nursing stations at rival hospitals, desperate for recruits.

Others are sending out direct-mail pitches that read like time-share come-ons. Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, for example, offers nurses a $200 gift card just to come in and take a look around.

And in one extreme case, a nurse-staffing firm is using a $10-million Newport Beach mansion as a lure.

Even the recruiters are getting recruited.

"I probably get a call once a week," said Robin Ludewig, director of nurse recruitment for UCLA . "It's a dog-eat-dog world out there."

Scrambling to comply with California's first-of-its-kind law mandating 1 nurse for every 5 patients in most wards starting this year, hospitals are in a hiring frenzy reminiscent of Silicon Valley's lust for engineers in 1999. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this month dropped his fight to suspend the law, leaving hospitals to cope with a labor shortage that is expected to grow for decades.

"We had a shortage before the ratio," said Sue Albert, who heads the nursing school at College of the Canyons in Valencia. Now, "it's a free-for-all in the nursing market."

Not all California hospitals are in the same bind. Kaiser Permanente and University of California hospitals often exceed the state staffing mandate, and their recruiters say hiring is relatively easy because nurses like the more manageable workloads.

But most hospitals are forced to use every recruiting tool they have -- and invent new ones.

One hospital staffing agency, in an extreme example of creative recruiting, has turned to reality TV. It invited six nurses from around the country to work in local hospitals for 13 weeks while living in a mansion not far from the scene of MTV's hit reality show "Laguna Beach."

The result is a show designed to tantalize nurses around the country with the joys of nursing in Southern California.

The show, called "13 Weeks," follows the four women and two men as they go about their jobs and get to know one another in the leased mansion.

Access Nurses, the San Diego-based company that created the show, plans to show the episodes on the Web at beginning today and hopes to get them on television.

Each of the 13 half-hour episodes also features the nurses in their free time pursuing dramatic and daring activities, including kayaking, hot-air ballooning, skydiving and go-cart racing.

"There's nothing that's scandalous on the show, and yet it's highly entertaining," said Alan Braynin, chief executive of Access Nurses. "You see people delivering babies. You see people learning new things, pushing themselves to the limit. You see people enjoying Southern California."

Access Nurses considered 100 audition tapes from nurses, and it didn't have any trouble finding hospital executives willing to collaborate. Larry Anderson, president of a company that owns four Orange County hospitals, said he saw the show as an opportunity to reach a broad audience of potential recruits.

"Most hospitals offer some kind of bonus and incentive system," said Anderson, of Costa Mesa-based Integrated Healthcare Holdings Inc. "We've had to get more creative."

Among the cast is Nick Shields, a 24-year-old intensive-care nurse working at Chapman Medical Center in Orange.

"It's been great," the Missouri native said -- although, he had to admit, "there's been times when you get homesick or don't want the cameras around."

The show highlights the lives of "travelers," U.S.-trained nurses who bounce from hospital to hospital on 13-week contracts, following the sun, ski season and shifting staffing needs. The prevalence of travelers is one indication of the degree to which the nursing shortage has put power in the hands of employees.

"I could go to any state and any hospital, and they would want me," said Amy Morrison, a 32-year-old labor and delivery nurse from Ohio who also is a member of the "13 Weeks" cast, working at Western Medical Center in Anaheim.

Last year, 11,000 travelers moved to California from other states, along with about 3,700 foreign-trained nurses, according to a study this year by UC San Francisco.

"There's a limited supply of qualified RNs out there, and there's just a huge demand," said Evan Burks, executive vice president of Comforce Corp., a Woodbury, N.Y.-based staffing company. "As California hospitals have to meet those ratios, there is going to be a greater and greater push to bring traveling nurses from other parts of the country. It could make shortages elsewhere worse."

Among the places California finds nurses is Des Moines. Jean Logan, a nursing professor there at Grand View College, said one of her students made a casual phone call to a San Diego hospital, which responded by flying her out for a visit.

"Other states are poaching us," Logan said. "But we're not giving our own nurses in Iowa the incentive to stay."

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