When it comes to nurses in Hawaii, the gap between public and private sector pay is too large.

So says Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

“This is a clear reflection of the fact that wages for registered nurses in the public hospital system are woefully behind the private sector,” Perreira said after nurses represented by HGEA voted not to ratify a proposed two-year contract with the state. They were the sole bargaining unit that did not sign off on the new agreement.

Perreira continued: “It is our hope that as we return to the bargaining table, the State Administration and Hawaii Health Systems Corporation take a realistic approach to bargaining a fair agreement with their nurses, or risk losing more staff because of the pay gap they are enduring.”

But just how large is that gap? Are private-sector nurses really earning substantially more than their public counterparts?

From a raw wages perspective, the answer seems to be yes.

The salary for an entry-level public-system nurse in Hawaii falls in a range of $57,828 to $71,772, according to figures provided to Civil Beat by Miles Takaaze, VP and public affairs director for Hawaii Health Systems Corporation. HHSC operates more than a dozen public medical facilities around the state and most of the public nurses work in these facilities.

On an hourly basis, private-sector nurses earn more.

Shawn Nakamoto, director of communications with the privately-owned Hawaii Pacific Health organization, which operates four medical facilites, said: “Starting salaries for nurses at Hawaii Pacific Health can range anywhere from a low of $34.10 an hour to $48.72 an hour.”

Those are the ranges that apply to nurses at Kapiolani Medical Center and Straub Clinic and Hospital. In other words, Kapiolani and Straub nurses — assuming an 8-hour workday and no overtime — would make between $70,928 to $101,338.

Obviously, on the wage front, Perreira is right.

But compensation is more than just wages.

“The problem is that it’s apples and oranges,” said Joan Craft, president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, a union representing private-sector nurses. “Because your salary is one thing, but then there’s your benefits… You’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

In March, Civil Beat reported that the cost of benefits for state employees in Hawaii amounts to about 60 percent of their salaries — double the national average.

Using this average, the total compensation of a public nurse making $60,000 a year in salary would be roughly $96,000.

By comparison, the average private sector employer pays out just an additional 29 percent in benefits. Assuming this average was used, the total compensation of a private nurse at Kapiolani Medical Center earning $73,00 would be about $94,000.

The fact is that Hawaii state employees receive more than just a paycheck. According to an online Summary of Employee Benefits report, the HGEA nurses receive vacation and sick leave, 13 holidays a year (as opposed to the average of 10 holidays offered by many private companies, according to the report), portions of their health care paid for, retirement and other perks.

It’s true the deal the nurses rejected included a 5 percent pay cut, as well as a reduction in government matching funds for healthcare. Under the proposed agreement, Hawaii would have covered 50 percent of health-care costs, down from 60 percent.

But even with the cuts, state employees still receive hefty benefits compared with the rest of the country and the private sector.

Perreira is right that private sector nurses have higher wages than those in the public sector. But, his statement is misleading because he failed to mention that benefits for state employees on average outweigh those in the private sector.