Travel nurses see rapid change of fortunes as Covid money runs out

Tiffany Jones was just a few tanks of gas away on her trip from Tampa, Florida, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, when she found out that her travel nurse’s contract had been revoked.

Jones, who has been a nurse for 17 years, joined a Facebook group for travel nurses and saw that she was not alone. Nurses reported losing their jobs suddenly and saw their rates as low as 50% in the middle of the decade.

“A lady packed her entire luggage and it was canceled during the orientation,” she said.

Many professional nurses like Jones have turned to travel wagons during the pandemic, when hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in dire need of help. Some travelers — who earned double and sometimes triple what registered employees earned — gathered on TikTok and other social media platforms to celebrate payday, share tips on how to calculate net income from contracts, and brag about how much they take home each week. Their good fortune has been so great that state and federal lawmakers have considered capping their wages, mobilizing nurses to protest.

The tide has turned quickly. With Covid hospitalization rates stabilizing, at least for now, and federal and state relief funding drying up, the contracts for travel nurses that were once plentiful and lucrative are fading away. And after stress over the past two years has led to staff changes and early retirements, hospitals across the country are focusing on hiring full-time nurses.

Nationally, demand for traveling registered nurses fell by a third in the previous month through April 10, according to data from staffing agency Aya Healthcare, although openings have rebounded slightly in recent weeks.

When Oregon’s governor declared a pandemic emergency on April 1, COVID-19 relief funds evaporated statewide. Oregon Health and Science University Hospital in Portland lost funding for nearly 100 travel nurses. Dr. John Hunter, chief executive of OHSU Health, said this, along with lower infection rates and more full-time appointments, had “burst the bubble.”

The health system had about 50 contractors of all kinds before the pandemic, compared to 450 at its height, when it overwhelmed patients, many of whom needed close monitoring, and turned a hospital recovery room into an intensive care unit.

“It was very expensive,” Hunter said. But things are changing, he said, and in recent weeks the hospital has negotiated contract rates with its travel nurses agency, up to 50%.

Staff nurses earn significantly less than their traveling counterparts. Rates for a new staff nurse at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, for example, start at $30 an hour—plus benefits and extras for night shifts. At the height of the pandemic, the hospital paid staffing agencies about $175 an hour for each travel nurse. The rate is still well over $100 an hour, but the hospital is trying to negotiate it. Because the hospital pays the agency directly, CEO Sean Tester said, the size of the nurses’ pocket is unclear.

For some travel nurses, the sudden drop in wages came as a shock. Since December, registered nurse Jessica Campbell has extended her contract by 13 weeks at an Illinois hospital without a hitch. In early April, a week after Campbell’s last contract, her recruiting firm said her rate would drop by $10 an hour and she could take him or her.

“I ended up accepting it because I felt like I had no other choice,” Campbell said.

The situation for some travel nurses has become so dire that a Kansas City, Missouri, law firm has said it is considering legal action against more than 35 recruitment agencies. Some agencies are “violating their contracts” and in others “committing outright fraud” through bait-and-switch maneuvers in travel nursing contracts, said Austin Moore, an attorney at Stueve Siegel Hanson.

Moore said the company opened an investigation in March and attracted comments from hundreds of nurses. “Our phones are ringing fast,” he said. “No one has experienced it this way – historically, contracts have been fulfilled.”

“As market conditions change, hospitals and other healthcare facilities may change the terms of their travel nurse contracts,” Stephen Dwyer, senior vice president and chief legal and operational officer for the American Employment Association, the trade group representing the travel nurse recruitment industry, said in an emailed statement. “.

“For rate cuts or contract cancellations that happen in the middle of hiring, recruiters often recommend advance notice,” he said.

Exact details can vary, Moore said, but when a staffing agency cancels a contract at the last minute or gives a nurse a day or two to look at a lower rate, the agency often breaks the contract. According to contracts, Moore added, the loss should fall to the agency, not the nurses, when the hospital asks for a lower rate.

Pay rates always fluctuate seasonally as the demand for nurses changes to fill employment gaps in hospitals, XueXia Bruton, an intensive care unit nurse in Houston, said. She has traveled since 2018, drawn to flexibility and financial freedom, and has no plans to return to nursing staff. Along the way, Bruton has rated her experience on TikTok and Instagram, telling her more than 91,000 followers that, for example, “it might make sense to wait for a contract until prices come back.”

“It was very difficult across the board during the virus infection when cases were really high,” Bruton said. “We were all exhausted and exhausted, so it was important to be able to take as much time as needed.”

Proton has seen crunch rates as high as $10,000 per week. The average price for travel nurses is now around $3,100, according to online recruitment marketplace Vivian Health. That’s still higher than it was before the pandemic, and much higher than what the typical staff nurse makes.

The past year has been particularly profitable for recruitment agencies. Cross Country Healthcare, one of the few publicly traded companies that employs travel nurses and other health care workers, reported a profit of $132 million in 2021, compared to a loss of $13 million the previous year and larger losses in 2019. Kevin Clark described The company’s 2021 financial results are described as a “historic milestone for both revenue and profitability.”

Big profits across the nurse recruitment industry have caught the attention of lawmakers, including U.S. Representative Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who said he fears private equity firms that have been buying staffing agencies are charging exorbitant fees during the pandemic, a pattern reported by Stat. In January, Welch and U.S. Representative Morgan Griffith (R-Va) wrote a letter to the White House demanding an investigation into possible “anti-competitive activity” by recruitment agencies after receiving reports that they were “substantially inflating the price by two or more Three or more pre-pandemic rates.

Some travel nurses are returning to partying full time, spurred on by massive incentives and stability. Jones, whose contract in Wyoming was canceled in early March, considered a nurse job in Montana — affected in part by his starting bonus of $10,000. But she did end up with a contract with a travel nurse in rural Kansas, where the pay is better than an employee’s job but not quite the way she’s used to during the pandemic.

Jones said her time traveling raised a big question: What is the value of a nurse?

On the road, Jones said, she “can breathe physically for the first time in years,” sometimes earning double what she was doing as a nurse.

“It’s a difficult profession,” she said. “We love doing it, but we have bills to pay as well.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and survey, KHN is one of the three major drivers of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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This story may be reproduced for free (details).KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and survey, KHN is one of the three major drivers of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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