Tiffanie Jones was a couple of tanks of gasoline on her way from Tampa, Fla., To Cheyenne, Wyo., 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 that she was not alone. Nurses had reported that they suddenly lost jobs and saw that their rates had dropped by as much as 50% in the middle of the contract.
“A lady packed her whole family and was canceled during the briefing,” she said.
Many career nurses like Jones turned to travel concerts during the pandemic, as hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients urgently needed help. Some travelers – who earned double, sometimes triple what staff earned as nurses – gathered on TikTok and other social media platforms to celebrate payday, share tips on how to calculate net income from contracts and brag about how much they took with home weekly. So great was their happiness that federal and state legislators considered setting a ceiling on their salaries and mobilizing nurses in protest.
The tide has turned quickly. As COVID-19 hospitalization rates stabilize, at least for now, and federal and state COVID-19 aids dry out, travel nurse contracts that were abundant and lucrative. And after the pressure cooker in the past two years led to staff turnover and an outbreak of early retirement, hospitals across the country are focused on recruiting full-time nurses.
At the national level, the demand for registered nurse travelers fell by a third a month up to April 10, according to data from the staffing agency Aya Healthcare, although openings have increased slightly in recent weeks.
When the Oregon governor declared the pandemic emergency on April 1, state-level emergency relief money evaporated COVID-19. Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland lost funds to close to 100 travel nurses. This, along with lower COVID-19 rates and more full-time employment, has led to “a burst of the bubble,” said Dr. John Hunter, CEO of OHSU Health.
The healthcare system had about 50 contractors of all kinds before the pandemic, compared to 450 at its peak, where patients, many in need of close monitoring, poured in and turned the hospital’s recovery room into an intensive care unit.
“It’s been very expensive,” Hunter said. But things are about to turn around, he said, and in recent weeks the hospital has negotiated contract prices with its travel nursing agency down by as much as 50%.
Staff nurses earn far less than their traveling colleagues. Awards for a New Nurse at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Louis Johnsbury, for example, starts at $ 30 an hour – plus benefits and extras for night shifts. At the height of the pandemic, hospital staffing agencies paid about $ 175 an hour for each travel nurse. The rate remains well above $ 100 an hour, but the hospital is trying to negotiate it down. Because the hospital pays the agency directly, it is unclear how much nurses’ pocket, CEO Shawn Tester said.
For some travel nurses, the sharp drop in pay has been a shock. Since December, registered nurse Jessica Campbell had extended her 13-week contract at a Illinois hospital without any hiccups. In early April, a week after Campbell’s latest contract, her recruiter said her rate would drop by $ 10 an hour and she could take it or leave.
“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, Mo., said it is considering lawsuits against more than 35 staffing agencies. Austin Moore, a lawyer at Stueve Siegel Hanson, said some agencies “violate their contracts” and in other cases “commit outright fraud” through bait-and-switch maneuvers on travel nursing contracts.
The company opened a study in March and drew comments from hundreds of nurses, Moore said. “Our phones are ringing the phone,” he said. “Nobody has experienced it that way – historically, contracts have been honored.”
Stephen Dwyer, senior vice president and chief legal and operations officer for the American Staffing Association, the trade group representing the travel industry nursing staff, said in an email statement that “as market conditions change, hospitals and other health facilities may change the terms of travel nursing contracts. . ”
“For rate reductions or contract cancellations that take place in the middle of the task, staffing companies often recommend prior notice,” he said.
Moore said it may vary slightly, but that when a staffing agency cancels a contract at the last minute or gives a nurse a day or two to consider a lower rate, the agency often breaks a contract. According to the contracts, the loss should accrue to the agency, not the nurses, when a hospital requests a lower rate, Moore added.
Wage rates have always fluctuated seasonally as the demand for nurses to close staff gaps in hospitals changes, said XueXia Bruton, a Houston-based intensive care nurse. She has been traveling since 2018, benefiting from the flexibility and financial freedom and has no plans to return to the nursing staff. Along the way, Bruton has cataloged her experiences on TikTok and Instagram, telling her more than 91,000 followers that, for example, “it may make more sense to wait to take a contract until prices rise again.”
“It was very hard across the board during COVID-19 as the cases were really high,” Bruton said. “We were all burnt out and exhausted, so it was important to be able to keep as much time off as necessary.”
Bruton saw crisis rates as high as $ 10,000 a week. Prices for travel nurses now average around $ 3,100, according to online employment marketplace Vivian Health. Yet it is higher than before the pandemic, and far above what a typical nurse does.
Last year was particularly lucrative for staffing agencies. Cross Country Healthcare, one of the few listed companies staffing travel nurses and other healthcare professionals, had a profit of $ 132 million in 2021 compared to a loss of $ 13 million the year before and even greater losses in 2019. Former CEO Kevin Clark called the company’s financial performance for 2021 a “historic milestone for both revenue and profitability.”
Large profits across the nursing staffing industry have attracted the attention of lawmakers, including U.S. Representative Peter Welch, D-Vt., Who said he feared private equity firms acquiring staffing firms charged exorbitant fees during the pandemic, a pattern reported by State. In January, Welch and U.S. Representative Morgan Griffith, R-Va., Wrote a letter to the White House requesting an investigation into possible “anti-competitive activity” from staffing agencies after receiving reports that they “raised the price sharply. with two, three or more times pre-pandemic rates. “
Some travel nurses return to full-time concerts, attracted by great incentives and stability. Jones, whose contract in Wyoming was canceled in early March, was considering hiring a nurse in Montana – in part affected by a $ 10,000 starting bonus. But she ended up in a travel nurse contract in rural Kansas, where the pay is better than a staff job would be, but not quite what she had become accustomed to during the pandemic.
Jones said her travel time raised a big question: How much is a nurse worth?
Along the way, Jones said, “she was able to breathe financially for the first time in years,” and at times she was almost double what she earned as a nurse.
“It’s a tough profession,” she said. “We love doing it, but we also have bills to pay.”