Nurses are quitting hospitals in droves to get paid more as travel workers

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More and more nurses who are getting burned out working in understaffed local hospitals are turning to a new field where they can earn a month's worth of pay in just one week.

Industry analysts say nurses are quitting their long-term staff jobs to become travel workers, filling temporary positions at strained hospitals across the nation for higher pay rates.

More than 30,000 travel nurse positions are available nationwide, according to SimpliFi, a health-care staffing firm. As COVID-19 continues spreading, health systems are expected to continue using travel nurse agencies at a higher level than usual.

"The last thing we want to do is turn patients away," Claire Zangerle, Chief Nurse Executive at Allegheny Health Network, told SimpliFi. "If it means that we have to keep those agency nurses on for as long as this takes for us to get through, that's what we're going to do."

Travel nursing contracts typically last for 12 to 13 weeks but some can extend up to six months. While some nurses are in it to see the U.S. and experience new places, the real draw for others is higher pay. Travel nurses make about 30% more than staff nurses, according to TravelNurses.com, and the incentives don't stop there.

"There are a slew of other benefits available depending on your location, such as bonuses, paid travel expenses -- hotel, mileage, and plane expense reimbursements -- as well as monthly housing and meal stipends, which can add up fast," Bryan Cannon, CEO and chief financial strategist at Cannon Advisors, told Health.

Erica Wagner, a travel nurse based in Rochester, Minnesota, said most nurses who become travel workers are after crisis pay.

"The contracts that are about 48 hours per week, in a crisis level environment, where the hospital is overwhelmed with COVID patients and you are brought in to help," Wagner told the Park Rapids Enterprise. "You could be taking on more patients than you typically do, so it's a little harder work, those contracts I've seen anywhere from, gross pay, $5,000 to $10,000 per week, depending on the state."

Nurses with experience in specialized units, like cardiovascular or intensive care, and those willing to travel to more remote locations have the potential to make the most money as travel workers. Hospital systems are willing to pay the increased wages because they're in such critical need for workers.

While travel nurses earn higher wages, there is a downside. Typical benefits offered to staff workers, like health care and retirement plans, aren't offered to contract workers. Travel nurses are also often working in zones where COVID is surging so there is risk of exposure as well.

There are also concerns that travel nurse staffing agencies are price gouging hospitals. The companies defend their rates, saying it is all about supply and demand. Still, four members of Congress in November asked the White House's COVID response team to launch an investigation.

"The rates that are being paid and the amounts the nurses are making are frequently out of line with physicians," Chip Kahn, president and chief executive officer of the Federation of American Hospitals, told the Washington Post. "Those companies that have those nurses are in a position to gouge and leverage. I don't think that can continue forever."

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