In the early morning on Mother’s Day in 2020, Solomon Barraza walked into an intensive-care unit in Amarillo, Texas, and, with the fluorescent lights clicking on above him after the night shift, flipped through the stack of papers attached to a gray clipboard — his roster of patients and nurses for the day. Barraza, who was 30 at the time, had only recently become a charge nurse at Northwest Texas Healthcare System hospital. He was technically still a “baby nurse”: Just over a year earlier, he started working his first shifts in the I.C.U. Now he was responsible for overseeing the care of everyone there, making sure his nurses and patients had whatever they needed, answering questions and directing care in case of an emergency. As he looked through his roster, he saw that there were 11 patients on his floor; eight had Covid-19, and five of those were intubated. Then he looked at the other sheet of paper. There would be four nurses working for the next 12 hours. He needed at least six.
He could see the day play out: a cascade of emergencies, a cacophony of beeping alarms and running feet, disasters that ended with overwhelmed nurses and patients crashing alone. And so for the first time, Barraza made the decision to call for “safe harbor” under a Texas law that can be invoked to protect nurses’ licenses while working in conditions that are potentially unsafe for patients. Barraza grabbed a form from the nurses’ station, and one by one, they all signed it.
Almost immediately, the emergencies began. “You need to get over to 18!” someone shouted. Barraza grabbed his mask and ran. He started hand-pumping air into the patient’s lungs with a ventilation bag while two other nurses hooked the bag up to oxygen. They stabilized that patient, and Barraza jogged down the hallways to check on the other seven. One person’s blood pressure was dropping precipitously, and Barraza was preparing to go inside the room when he thought to check on another patient, one door down. That patient’s blood-oxygen level had dropped into the 40s, far below the normal range of 95 to 100. “So what do I do?” Barraza said. “Who do I help first? There are multiple people’s lives at stake at the same time. What if I pick wrong and someone dies?”
A year and a half later, Barraza was sitting on the desk in the middle of the cardiac-intensive-care unit, or C.I.C.U. — which handles both coronary and Covid patients — looking around the group of nurses, remembering those first months of an ongoing crisis. “There were some funky things going on with staffing back then,” he told the group. Nurses were leaving the hospital to take traveling jobs in New York. The rest of the hospital was shut down, so the I.C.U. floor was the chaotic heart of a ghost town. The hospital had yet to hire traveling nurses to pad its local staff, and Mother’s Day felt like a turning point. It was the day Barraza recognized that the pandemic would be defined by twin emergencies, two figures that he would watch anxiously as they rose and fell: the waves of patients on ventilators in his I.C.U., and the number of nurses available to take care of them.
In 2020 alone, Northwest lost 185 nurses — nearly 20 percent of its nursing staff. In the I.C.U., that number was closer to 80 percent. Many of those nurses left to take jobs with travel-nursing agencies, which placed them, on a temporary and highly lucrative basis, in hospitals throughout the country. When the nurses at Northwest quit, the hospital eventually hired its own travelers, who flowed onto Barraza’s floor to work for weeks or months at a time. There have been days when the unit was barely staffed and days when 20 travelers showed up unexpectedly. Barraza has watched friends burn out and retire. He has watched nurses leave for better pay or less stressful jobs. He has welcomed the strangers who have come to take their place — befriending them, folding them into his I.C.U. team and then watching them leave all over again.
Bedside nursing has always been, as one hospital chief executive put it, a “burnout profession.” The work is hard. It is physical and emotional. And hospitals have built shortages into their business model, keeping their staffs lean and their labor costs down. When the pandemic hit, shortages only increased, pushing hospitals to the breaking point. Nationwide, the tally of nurses with both the skills and the willingness to endure the punishing routines of Covid nursing — the isolation rooms, the angry families and the unceasing drumbeat of death — is dwindling. In a survey of critical-care nurses last year, 66 percent of respondents said they were considering retirement.
Sitting on the desk that day, Barraza didn’t know why he kept reflecting on May 2020. He had stabilized those two patients that morning, but that would not always be the case. For the most part, he said, the days bleed together in his mind. Sometimes it felt as if he had spent the last two years running the world’s longest marathon, his adrenaline pushing him from patient to patient, watching people die and trying his best to pause for a moment, just enough time to recognize each as an individual without being overwhelmed by emotion.
“That was the first time we called for safe harbor,” said Matt Melvyn, a veteran nurse who has stayed with Barraza throughout the pandemic. “But it was definitely not the last.”
In the flood of resignations, retirements and shortages that have redefined workplaces across industries these past two years, nothing has been as dramatic or as consequential as the shifts taking place in nursing. The scramble for bedside nurses is tied to everything from how we run our hospitals to the way we value the work of caring for others to our understanding of public health and medicine. And if our health care system has faltered under the weight of the pandemic, it will need hundreds of thousands more nurses to build itself back up.
For at least three decades, hospitals across the United States have followed a model that aims to match nurses precisely to the number of occupied beds. It’s a guessing game that has charge nurses performing daily tallies and hospital administrators anticipating the seasonal movements of illness and people — winter flus and migrating retirees. Many hospitals don’t offer nurses clear paths toward career advancement or pay increases. Depending on demand, they may trade nurses between units. When there are shortages throughout the hospital, they will send out emails and text messages asking nurses to come in and take an extra 12-hour shift. And when the shortages are too great, hospitals turn to travelers.
Even before the pandemic, there were many reasons to hire travelers. Nurses would be brought in for a season, a maternity leave or the opening of a new department. This kind of gig work grew increasingly common, and from 2009 to 2019, according to data from Staffing Industry Analysts, revenue in the travel industry tripled, reflecting a work force that was already in flux. There are hundreds of staffing agencies in the United States — national agencies, regional agencies, agencies that specialize in bringing in nurses from other countries, agencies that send American nurses abroad. In mid-March 2020, there were over 12,000 job opportunities for traveling nurses, more than twice the number in 2019.
Then, as the coronavirus spread, demand came from every corner. By December 2020, there were more than 30,000 open positions for travelers. And with the help of federal dollars — from the CARES Act Provider-Relief Funds and the American Rescue Plan — their salaries started climbing. Job listings in Fargo, N.D., advertised positions for $8,000 a week. In New York, travelers could make $10,000 or more. The average salary of a staff nurse in Texas is about $75,000; a traveler could make that in months.
Nurses often refer to their jobs as a calling — a vocation that is not, at its core, about money. At the same time, nurses have spent years protesting their long hours and nurse-to-patient ratios. In 2018 alone, there were protests in California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and several other states. When the pandemic hit and travel positions opened up in hospitals all over the country, nurses suddenly had more options than ever. They could continue serving patients, continue working grueling hours in frantic conditions, but they would be paid well for it. Travelers were valued. Their work was in demand. The money would be enough that after a few weeks or months on the job, they could go home and recover.
Hospital associations were already beginning to see the steep costs of these workers, but they had little choice in the matter. The shortages were too severe, and they would only get worse. In July 2020, Texas established a statewide emergency staffing system, coordinated by select regional advisory councils. The state has put $7 billion in relief funds toward supplementing staffing, which has allowed hospitals like Northwest to attract travel nurses without shouldering the full cost. “The problem is that their salaries were so much higher than our employee salaries,” said Brian Weis, the chief medical officer at Northwest. “Our employed nurses were doing the same job, but they’re saying, ‘Why are we getting paid a fraction of what these nurses are?’”
The following year, the demand for travel nursing broke loose from Covid. In April and May 2021, as case counts dipped, hospital requests for travel nurses only grew exponentially. “They now know what pent-up demand does to a health care system, and it’s not healthy,” said April Hansen, the group president at Aya Healthcare, one of the largest providers of travel nurses in the country. “If you look at our demand today, it looks like our demand pre-Covid in terms of specialties: med surge, telemetry, I.C.U., emergency room, surgical. It’s just the volume that is being asked for in every specialty.”
It isn’t the traveling-nurse boom alone that has transformed the market. There are also more job opportunities beyond the bedside than ever. Nurse practitioners treat patients in doctors’ offices; insurance companies employ thousands of nurses; Microsoft and Amazon have hundreds of open nursing jobs. Today, only 54 percent of the country’s registered nurses work in hospitals. “There was competition for talent before the pandemic,” Hansen said. “But the pandemic took a small crack and made it as wide as the Grand Canyon.”