When the pandemic started way back in 2019, hospitals have been very busy and lots of nurses quit their jobs because of the hectic schedule that hospitals have been giving them and for the fear of being infected with the virus. Hence, travel nurses became a big demand in the hospital industry.
During the pandemic, many career nurses have turned to travel gigs because of the crowding of hospitals due to COVID-19 patients urgently needing help. These travel nurses have been earning double, sometimes triple the salary of staff registered nurses during the pandemic. The demand for them rose during the pandemic due to the lack of nursing staff at that time.
As Covid hospitalization stabilized as of now, the tide swiftly turned, and federal and state Covid relief funds dried up, travel nurse demand and contracts that were plentiful during the pandemic are vanishing. Nationally, the demand for travel nurses have dropped by a third in the month of April this year according to data from AYA Healthcare, although openings rebounded slightly in recent weeks.
When Oregon’s Governor declared the pandemic emergency over last April, state-level Covid relief money evaporated. Oregon Health and Science University hospital in Portland lost funding for close to 100 travel nurses and along that the lower Covid rates and hospitals preferring full time nurses rather than travel nurses. Dr. John Hunter, CEO of OHSU Health said that this has led to a “Bursting of the bubble”.
The health system only had 50 contractors before the pandemic compared to 450 at the height of the pandemic. “It has been very expensive”, Hunter said. But things are turning around and during that time, the hospitals have negotiated contract rates with travel nurses agencies down as much as 50 percent.
Staff nurses who are working full time in a hospital are earning far less compared to travel nurses. Rates for new staff nurses in Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, for example, start at $30 an hour- plus benefits and extra for night shifts. But, during the height of the pandemic, the hospital was paying staffing agencies about $175 an hour for each travel nurse.
For some travel nurses, the abrupt drop in their paychecks has been a shock. There have been some travel nurses that didn’t have any problems since December last year, but, in April this year their recruiter said that their rate dropped to $10 an hour and told them that they can take it or leave it.
Because of this, the American Hospital Association (AHA) has expressed support for a new bill that would direct the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to increase surveillance of the travel nursing agencies and their impact on workforce shortages.
US senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) recently introduced the Travel Nursing Agency Transparency Study Act to help address the travel nursing industry’s business and payment practices that are hurting hospitals and health systems.
“Nurses serve on the front line and provide an essential service to our communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cramer said in a press release. “However, hiring agencies are reportedly taking advantage of the demand created by workforce shortages, charging inflated rates , and keeping a significant percentage for their own profits. Such business operations of these agencies could have far-reaching effects on the quality of our healthcare system in rural America and must be reviewed.
Stephen Dwyer, Senior Vice President and chief legal and operating officer of the American Staffing Association, the trade group that represents the travel nurse staffing industry, said in an emailed statement that “ as market conditions change, hospitals and other healthcare facilities may change the terms of travel nurse contracts.” “For rate reductions or contract cancellations that take place mid-assignment, staffing companies often recommend advance notice,” he said.
During the height of the pandemic, travel nurses received as high as $10,000 a week, while today, they now only average $3,100 a week according to online hiring marketplace Vivian Health. Still, that has been higher compared to before the pandemic.
AHA voiced concern that the agencies have been inflating prices to increase their own profit margins. For example, travel nurse staffing agencies increase their hourly rates by 213 percent between January 2019 and January 2022. But, instead of passing along the wage increases to travel nurses, the agencies are retaining profits for themselves, AHA asserted.
Last January 2022, almost 200 members of congress urged the White House COVID-19 Response Team to investigate travel nurse agencies because of the reports they received.
In addition to receiving support from AHA, the Travel Nursing Agency Transparency Act is backed by the North Dakota Medical Association (NDMA) and North Dakota Hospital Association (NDHA).
Tim Blasl, President of NDHA said “Ballooning wages and disparity in agency nurse and staff nurse wages over the past two years have grown to a crisis level.” “The high fees paid to these staffing agencies are simply unsustainable, we support Senator Cramer’s proposal to study the business and payment practices of nurse staffing agencies to better understand how such extreme prices negatively affect patients and hospitals and to find solutions that prevent conduct that only makes the nurse shortage worse”.
We may question ourselves “How much is a nurse worth?”. Though we may not be able to answer that directly, we must all put in mind that although the pandemic has been stabilized, we won't be this stabilized without the help of our travel nurses. They need to put money in their pockets to feed their family. With the help of our government, the problem with the travel nurses' wages this time may be resolved, and the staffing agencies who are gaining more than they should be held accounted for.