I am concerned that you are starting your career want to find the most pay for the least work. Nursing, regardless of what your speciality is not the profession to see these qualities. You will be frustrated and disappointed. I am curious, however, who are your peers.......I would guess that they are not ER nurses. Since I have been both I am particularly qualified to answer this question.
The ER and the ICU are different skills sets. They are both critical care areas but the amount of patients they care for and the length of time they are cared for are completely different.
The ER nurse is an expert in multiple levels of nursing. She/he must care for the mundane and idiotic to the horrific and traumatic nature of critical patients. The ER nurse must care for of ALL ages at all times. The encounters, while brief, are vital to a patients survival. Triage is the most vital section of an emergency department for only the most talked and experienced nurse belongs here to decide who needs to be seen and who can wait. Delays on the wrong patient can end in death and loss of limb.....not to mention lawsuit. The ER nurse must know how to deliver a baby, to coding a 5 year old, resuscitating a teen trauma or coding the acute heart attack.
The flow, or patient movement, in and out of the department is never stopped and most ED nurses need to juggle 6-8 patients, of varying degrees of illness or intoxication, and still accept the multiple trauma 2 min out. The ability to multitask is key here. You will never sit down and be in constant motion on your feet for there is always something that needs to be done. There are brief moments of calmness,that never lasts (in most departments), followed by the ever intake of the sick and injured. Then deal with the drunk/addict that decides that remaining in the department is not what they desire and decide to attack staff.
Emergency departments at the gateway for admissions these days and in fact are the safety net for the uninsured who cannot afford a $300.00 doctor visit or the teen parent who can't quiet the crying newborn and come to the ED to keep from harming their child. It is where people turn to when they have no where else to go.
The ICU nurse case for the sickest and the critical. She is responsible for every aspect of that patients care From meds and their illness but for the emotional and physical well being of those patients. She must pay meticulous attention to detail of those patients keeping track of minute details and changes that may mean significant impacts on the patient survival.
A sick ICU patient can have as many as 10 to 13 IV drips infusing with multiple invasive monitoring devices that require constant attention and monitoring to sustain stability and life. There are tubes made for every orifice and then there are the orifices that are man made by equipment that sustains life....whether that is for the kidneys, lungs, or heart.
The ICU nurse must know how to manage the subtle difference in the titrated meds to that specific cocktail that will elevate B/P, increase cardiac output, correct abnormalities, sustain life without causing harm from the side effects of the meds. Especially in non-academic setting she is the doctors liaison to stabilize and improve the patient's condition and know when to call with those subtle differences that can mean an ominous outcome is near.
Most ICU nurses hate the ED. They prefer their patients in bed on a monitor. The commotion and noise of the ED drives them to distraction. Most ED nurses don't like the ICU. The ADHD tendencies of the ED nurse finds the ICU while difficult and interesting...suffocating by tending to the same patients everyday. There are a few, like me, that loves them both. But even I prefer that sickest of the sick in the ICU for if they are not ....my ADD kicks in.
As critical care nurses we are not paid any more money than anyone else in the facility with the same length of service as a nurse. We MIGHT get a differential for our speciality certification,(CCRN,CEN) that can cost up to $1000.00 per certification, of 50 cents per hour.....and that is a HUGE maybe. There are other special certifications that are required like ACLS, PALS, ENPC, TNCC etc......that are also require but we are not paid to have them. You work the critical areas because you have a passion for it is certainly NOT for any extra money.
Neither is easier that the other. Neither pays more money for the speciality. Both work incredibly hard.