The Health Minister has questioned claims that nurses are leaving the profession because of the ongoing pay dispute.
Simon Hamilton told MLAs he had seen no evidence of nurses quitting for that reason.
Mr Hamilton had been challenged on the issue by Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy during Assembly question time.
Nurses' representatives have threatened industrial action over the terms of a pay award set by Mr Hamilton for 2015/16.
The Health Minister has said the majority of workers will receive a one-off additional payment equating to 1% of their salary this year.
But unions have criticised both the substance of the pay award and how it is being implemented, claiming they were not fully consulted.
During question time Mr Murphy claimed there was "dismay in the nursing profession" and said this was having an effect "on people leaving the profession and perhaps even on the ability to recruit people to the profession".
But Mr Hamilton replied: "The Member's premise is that there is a difficulty in recruiting and retaining nurses.
"Some people have made those arguments, but I have seen no empirical evidence to back them up. I would put an argument back to those people, which is that nurses' pay in Northern Ireland is a little below the pay in other parts of the United Kingdom, but it is about 99% of that.
"The average pay in Northern Ireland, for example, is 86% of what it is in England.
"So, in that respect, nurses' pay is keeping in line with national pay in a way that many other professions are not."
The minister said the unions' pay demands would have cost his department £40m, the entirety of which he is putting into tackling waiting lists.
If nurses vote for industrial action, it would stop short of a strike and would take the form of a work-to-rule protest, with steps such as a refusal to work unpaid hours.