Yes, bonuses are for real. In the area I live every hospital within driving distance was offering a sign on package, and I don't know of any of my graudating classmates who did not get one. I applied for the position I wanted in a very busy ED, and when I signed for a year commitment I was given a lump sum $8000. (Other area hospitals offerred more, some offered less, and had different amount of contract years or disbursements.) I think it is a benefit for both the facility and the nurse, because as a brand-new RN, the facility spends a TON of money in precepting me, sending me to ACLS, PALS, and CC. They are investing a significant amount of money in me to stay on as staff, and with the bonus and signing me for a year, they are ensuring that I will stay and they will see the benfit of all the training they gave me. I get an extensive 6-month orientation, paid time for education such as ACLS, PALS, and CC, and assorted other educational courses they pay for and send me to. Plus they give me cash every year on top of it for going to get my BSN and grad school. They way I see it we are both getting something out of the deal, and I have no problem commiting to work for a set time. I love my job, my managers, and my co-workers, and would not want to work anywhere else anyway.
The market was so saturated with new nurses when I graduated that you HAD to sign a contract to get a job, there were just too many new grads and only so many positions available in hospitals to train the new grads.
There are many different reasons facilities give sign on bonuses. Yes, some can not keep nurses and are awful work environments. But I also think some really want to attract quality nurses and keep them, instead of spending money to orient new grads every year who jump ship the first chance they get. Nurses can make so much money by going agency or pool in my area, employers have to make it very attractive to keep nurses as Staff.
A lot of my friends went to another large hospital in the area that was offering a large bonus and a 3 year sign on contract. I hear the conditions are bad, they are understaffed, and the new nurses have not received enough orientation to their units.
I would suggest thoroughly researching a facility advertising a bonus if you want to work there. Talk to nurses who work there or talk to nursing instructors at your school. If you want a position and are still not sure about the term of the comittment, put your bonus in the bank and do not spend it. In most cases, if you are not happy you can return the money and leave the facility. In my case, if I were to leave even 1 day short of my 1-yr contract, I would have to return the entire amount of the bonus, there is no pro-rating of it. Read your contract carefully, and know exactly what you are getting into.
Good luck finding a fit for yourself. Weigh the good and bad, what you get out of it and what the facility gets out of it, and do your research.