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Health care leads local wage gains

  • Clinical lab scientist Grace Hunter works in the Kaiser Permanente hospital laboratory, in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.

Sonoma County wages grew about 3 percent in the past year, with health care professionals making the strongest gains, according to new data from the state.

But some workers saw their paychecks shrink, a sign of lingering recession, economists say.

The annual survey of average pay for nearly 500 job titles found little wage growth for many occupations. With unemployment high and business recovery still slow, most employers are keeping a lid on wages, said Eduardo Martinez, senior economist at Moody's Analytics.

In some fields, there's little demand for workers, he said. "It's having the effect of lowering wages," Martinez said.

But demand from an aging Sonoma County population is driving wages upward for health care professionals. Those workers — including doctors, registered nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists and medical technologists — saw their pay rise 11 percent in the past year, according to the survey.

"Demand for health care occupations in Sonoma County has picked up at a quicker pace than the rest of California and the U.S.," said Martinez, who tracks local economic trends.

Medical professionals are highly skilled and are compensated accordingly, said Judy Coffey, senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente in Sonoma and Marin counties.

"To attract and retain great doctors, nurses, other health care professionals and staff, not only do we offer competitive wages, but we also leverage technology to enable our physicians and staff to provide expert patient care and improve health," she said. "That takes a highly trained and skilled team."

Still, wages for health care support jobs, including nursing aides, medical assistants and pharmacy aides, were flat.

While overall pay growth was modest, it shows the local economy is starting to heal, said Ben Stone, director of Sonoma County's Economic Development Board. Local wages grew just 0.5 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to the state.

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