As travel nursing demand subsides, hospitals are hoping they’ll return to the full-time workforce.
Travel nurses made as much as $10,000 a week during the worst of the pandemic. However, salaries have dropped to $2,662 per week on average in recent months. Travel nurses are having contracts abruptly cancelled while in transit to their new site. Agreed-upon salaries are being renegotiated at lower rates.
“Nurses aren’t getting paid the exorbitant salaries we saw months ago,” said Cindy Bacon, PhD, RN, CNE, NE-BC, associate professor and program director of MSN Programs at the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing.
A solution for dire need
While travel nurse salaries have noticeably decreased, they’re still generally higher than the historical average salaries of registered nurses.
“The picture for travel nursing demand is very similar,” said Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, Dean and Bessie Baker Distinguished Professor of the Duke University School of Nursing. In 2019, only about 2% of all registered nurses were travel nurses. By the fall of 2021, travel nurse openings increased by nearly 500% compared to January 2020. Like salaries, that unprecedented surge in demand has dropped. Still, it remains higher than pre-pandemic levels.
But travel nursing isn’t going away entirely. It can still rapidly provide a nursing workforce in times of dire need — and not just because of a pandemic. Some states have severe ongoing nursing shortages. “Travel nurses allow hospitals to address gaps in the full-time, permanent nursing workforce, thereby avoiding the inability to respond to the quantity and acuity of patient needs,” said Guilamo-Ramos.
Unsustainable travel nursing demand
The travel nurse model is clearly not a financially sustainable solution for hospitals. “It significantly raises the cost of healthcare delivery, and does not provide a long-term solution for a stable, consistent, and well-compensated permanent nursing workforce,” said Guilamo-Ramos.
Travel nurses also present some additional challenges on your unit when it comes to teamwork. “The addition of temporary employees can impact the ability to function as a team and can impact overall morale,” said Emergency Nurses Association president Jenn Schmitz, MSN, CEN.
Travel nurses are often competent and skilled. Regardless, they’re not familiar with the culture of your unit, the personalities of your colleagues, or the location of all supplies, for example.
For these reasons, said Guilamo-Ramos, “Frequent changes in the nursing workforce and varying clinical expertise and experience with specific hospital units and patient populations is problematic. It represents a direct challenge to the high quality and safety of the care typically provided by seasoned and well-coordinated nursing teams.”
If you’re a travel nurse, you’ve probably encountered resentment from full-time nurses. “The attitude is, ‘The travel nurse is making so much money but doesn’t know the specifics of the organization,’” explained Bacon. If you’re a staff nurse doing the same job as a travel nurse, large pay differentials can be tough to ignore. “This is a disincentive to retaining the permanent staff nursing workforce and may be discouraging to workplace morale,” said Guilamo-Ramos.
Some travelers are returning
Some nurses travel until they hit a specific financial goal. After paying off student loans or earning a down payment for a house, some return to their previous jobs. The million-dollar question is: Will most do so? “That’s what a lot of nurse leaders are hoping for,” said Bacon.
Some travel nurses are returning to full-time jobs, but in roles typically away from the bedside.
Others are switching to different settings. Inpatient nurses suffering from burnout may switch to outpatient or ambulatory care, for example. In those settings, said Bacon, “Nurses can have more control over their worksites and more manageable workloads.”
Did many of your colleagues leave to travel? Likely, most of the nurses left behind with you are new graduates.
“Particularly in the med/surg floors, there are very few experienced nurses available. If you have two or three years’ experience, you’re a veteran,” said Bacon.
Hospitals need travel nurses to return in order to establish a more experienced nursing workforce. They’re coming up with creative ways to lure them back — help with affordable housing, tuition and childcare assistance, and flexible scheduling.
Hospitals also need to retain experienced staff nurses who may have some additional leverage to negotiate salaries.
If you’re a travel nurse who wants more stability, there’s even a middle ground. Some hospitals are creating internal travel pools.
Nurses are paid premium wages, just like travel nurses, with contracts running from 13 to 26 weeks, just like travel nursing. The difference is that nurses stay within the health care system and travel to different facilities. “A number of places are trying that, with varying degrees of success — because — here’s the thing, there’s not that many nurses left to draw from, unfortunately,” said Bacon.
Travel nursing demand considerations
Financial realities motivate some travel nurses to return to the full-time workforce. “If we go into a full-blown recession, that would be an economic driver to get nurses back,” said Bacon. “But will they be happy enough to stay? Or is it just a short-term fix? That’s what worries me.”
Regardless of whether you’re a full time nurse or a traveler, one thing is clear. “Nationally, nurses are seeking better compensation, working conditions, and flexibility in their work assignments,” said Guilamo-Ramos.
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