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Travel nurses raced to help during Covid. Now they’re facing abrupt cuts.

Travel nurses raced to help during Covid. Now they’re facing abrupt cuts.
May 12, 2022 Rachel Tirabassi

By 

Tiffanie Jones was a few tanks of gas into her drive from Tampa, Florida, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, when she found out her travel nurse contract had been canceled.

Jones, who has been a nurse for 17 years, caught up with a Facebook group for travel nurses and saw she wasn’t alone. Nurses had reported abruptly losing jobs and seeing their rates slashed as much as 50 percent midcontract.

“One lady packed up her whole family and was canceled during orientation,” she said.

Many career nurses like Jones turned to travel gigs during the pandemic, when hospitals crowded with Covid-19 patients urgently needed the help. Some travelers — who made double, sometimes triple, what staff registered nurses earned — gathered on TikTok and other social media platforms to celebrate payday, share tips on how to calculate net income from contracts, and boast about how much they were taking home weekly. So great was their good fortune that federal and state lawmakers considered capping their pay, mobilizing nurses in protest.

The tide has swiftly turned. As Covid hospitalization rates stabilize, at least for now, and federal and state Covid relief funding dries up, travel nurse contracts that were plentiful and lucrative are vanishing. And after the pressure cooker of the past two-plus years led to staff turnover and a rash of early retirements, hospitals nationwide are focused on recruiting full-time nurses.

Nationally, demand for registered nurse travelers dropped by a third in the month leading up to April 10, according to data from staffing agency Aya Healthcare, although openings have rebounded slightly in recent weeks.

When Oregon’s governor declared the pandemic emergency over April 1, state-level Covid relief money evaporated. Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland lost funding for close to 100 travel nurses. That, along with lower Covid rates and more full-time hires, has led to “a bursting of the bubble,” said Dr. John Hunter, CEO of OHSU Health.

The health system had about 50 contractors of all kinds before the pandemic, compared with 450 at its height, when patients, many in need of close monitoring, flooded in and turned the hospital’s recovery room into an intensive care unit.

“It has been very expensive,” Hunter said. But things are turning around, he said, and in recent weeks the hospital has negotiated contract rates with its travel nurse agency down as much as 50 percent.

Staff nurses make far less than their traveling counterparts. Rates for a new staff nurse at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, for example, start at $30 an hour — plus benefits and extra for night shifts. At the pandemic peak, the hospital paid staffing agencies about $175 an hour for each travel nurse. The rate remains well over $100 an hour, but the hospital is trying to negotiate it down. Because the hospital pays the agency directly, how much nurses pocket is unclear, said CEO Shawn Tester.

For some travel nurses, the abrupt drop in pay has been a shock. Since December, registered nurse Jessica Campbell had extended her 13-week contract at an Illinois hospital without any hiccups. In early April, a week into Campbell’s latest contract, her recruiter said that her rate would drop by $10 an hour and that she could take it or leave it.

“I ended up accepting it because I felt like I had no other option,” Campbell said.

The situation for some travel nurses has gotten so bad that a law firm in Kansas City, Missouri, said it is considering legal action against more than 35 staffing agencies. Austin Moore, an attorney at Stueve Siegel Hanson, said some agencies are “breaching their contracts” and in other cases “committing outright fraud” through bait-and-switch maneuvers on travel nursing contracts.

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