Accountable Healthcare - Travel nurses bring gig-minded approach to profession
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September 22, 2021

Travel nurses bring gig-minded approach to profession

A message board for travel nurses is filled with posts from nurses who have recently quit their full-time jobs at hospitals to pursue high-paying, temporary staffing contracts around the U.S. 

On the Reddit board, rookie or aspiring travel nurses ask for input on which travel nurse staffing companies are most reputable, where to find the most lucrative contracts, and the repercussions of breaking a contract early if they don't want to stay in one location for long. 

In one post, a new travel nurse said FOMO — fear of missing out — set in after accepting a 13-week assignment that paid $3,200 gross for 36 hours a week. "Then offers jumped sky high to $4-5k/week, local too," the nurse wrote. "Anyone else getting lesser paid contracts? Make me feel less FOMO." 

In another post, a nurse shared how a recruiter advised them to list their sister's Vermont address to accept an assignment in Massachusetts for which travelers need to reside at least 200 miles away. "He said it's a grey area but done often," the nurse asked. "What do you think?"

Several posts from the past 14 days are written by nurses curious about travel but hesitant to resign from their hospital employers in case the high pay for temporary staff recedes, leaving them without a safety net. 

Other nurses see travel jobs as an off-ramp from the profession completely rather than taking a pay cut to return to a full-time staff position. Users note that their pay is four- to seven-times what they made as staff nurses.   

"The pay increase I've realized over the past few years has changed my life and I'm currently making 4x what I was making as a nurse out of school," one user wrote. "However, after being spoiled by travel money there's no way I'm going to go back to staff nursing. I've been looking at private sector jobs and those seem to be the most promising, including consulting or informatics." 

Hospitals relied on travel nurses during COVID-19 surges, and the high-dollar contracts to attract staff to areas facing severe shortages or into COVID-19 units have helped fuel a major labor market shift in which hospitals compete with lucrative, temporary contracts year-round. There are currently about 30,000 open travel nurse positions across the U.S., up about 30 percent from last winter's peak, according to data from healthcare staffing firm SimpliFi, as reported by Bloomberg.

In addition to high pay, many travel nurse staffing companies offer benefits like weekly paychecks and private housing. One company, American Traveler, boasts that many of its accommodations include access to swimming pools, hot tubs and scenic views. "Live like a star and enjoy a luxury lifestyle in this beautiful traveler housing in California, conveniently located near restaurants, shopping, and entertainment," according to a listing for housing in Los Angeles. 

In February, the American Hospital Association called on the Federal Trade commission to examine temporary staffing agencies' pay practices and prices for travel nurses, noting that some had tripled their rates for travel nurses. 

"Such outrageous rate hikes appear to be naked attempts to exploit the pandemic by charging supracompetitive prices to desperate hospitals," AHA General Counsel Melinda R. Hatton wrote to Rebecca Slaughter, acting FTC chair. "While the nurse staffing agency industry too often blames hospitals for driving up the rates, the fact is that hospitals are in dire need of nursing staff to care for their patients and have little choice but to pay the rates demanded and refrain from complaining publicly for fear of being cut off from the supply of travel nurses by staffing agencies that set the prices." 

The California Hospital Association on Sept. 15 put forth a similar request, asking California Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate travel nurse companies for anticompetitive pricing. The association noted that "skyrocketing prices" affect hospitals in poorer communities and communities of color the most because they are less likely to be able to afford the high rates.

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