High pay for traveling nurses a symptom and cause of staff shortages

Donna Pearson is one of the estimated 2,000 nurses in Mississippi who left a full-time hospital job during the pandemic.

“We work hard and just weren’t seeing the benefits,” Pearson said.

Many — like Pearson — have just gone to another hospital, as a traveler.

“I’m going to follow the money,” she said. And the money, she said, is crazy.

The job market for nurses is way out of whack. Traveling registered nurses are making far more than full-time staffers doing the same job. And that’s causing staffers to hit the road to take a traveling gig, only to be replaced by an expensive traveler.

The escalating pay is a product of — and partially responsible for — staffing trouble in hospitals that has exceeded critical levels in recent weeks, especially in the undervaccinated South. 

Traveling nurses have always made more than full-time nurses at hospitals and usually get a stipend for meals and lodging. But now, it’s many times more. Pearson is headed to Midland, Texas, where she’ll make over $120 an hour. 

Recruiters are regularly luring nurses with contracts exceeding $5,000 a week.

Subsidized by federal relief funds

How can hospitals afford it? Several Southern states, including Texas and Mississippi, are using their federal COVID-19 relief money to help the facilities pay the ever-rising rates. The state Pearson is leaving is simultaneously bringing in 1,000 traveling nurses at a cost of $10 million a week.

Texas is up to nearly 4,000 travel nurses funded by the government, said Carrie Kroll with the Texas Hospital Association.

But for the hospitals, there are downsides to relying so heavily on high-paid travelers — mostly morale. 

“It does take its toll,” Kroll said.

In Texas, Kroll said, some hospitals are offering staff nurses retention bonuses. But it’s nothing like the money the same hospitals are paying these temporary nurses, who often need some help getting up to speed.

And it’s the lower-paid staff nurses who do the training.

“It is infuriating”

“When you have nurses working on a bedside and they’ve committed to staying, and their colleagues are leaving and are coming and making a lot more money than they are, I think it’s hard when you’re in this environment and you’ve been dealing with COVID day after day,” she said.

“Hard” is not the word Taylor Wylie uses. She’s an intensive care unit nurse in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I mean, it is just infuriating that they are willing to pay these travelers beaucoup dollars,” she said.

It seems like the only way to get a pandemic payday is to leave, Wylie said, even though the hospital will likely have to fill the vacancy with a pricey traveler.

“Just within the past couple of weeks, we’ve had so many nurses put in their two weeks and go travel,” she said. “I’ve seen contracts upwards of $10,000 to $12,000 a week because hospitals are so desperate for staff.”

Projected nurse shortage

The nursing workforce is projected to fall short of the estimated need in the future, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. But the number of nursing students has been growing, keeping up with demand each year, said -nursing professor Karen Lasater at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s not a nursing shortage,” she said. “It’s a shortage of well-funded positions for nurses.”

And right now, the critical positions needed are in ICUs and emergency departments. But they are among the most taxing jobs in the field.

And pay is not the only problem. Lasater said in most states, there are no strict rules about how many patients a floor nurse might be responsible for. So, especially in a pinch, some are watching eight or 10 at a time.

“That’s unsustainable,” Lasater said.

It’s too soon to say whether nursing will be forever changed — in working conditions or pay. Professor Joanne Spetz at the University of California, San Francisco, said she could see more nurses staying in traveling roles for a while, while the money is so good.

But it’s more likely that as COVID cools off, hospitals will have to move quickly to training a new crop of nurses, replacing the retirees who left the profession early.

“That really is then shifting this emergency thing into the long-term investment philosophy,” Spetz said. “And that’s really where we’re going to have to go.”