For some reason, hospitals around the country can’t seem to hire enough staff nurses, which has led to a boom in demand for so-called “traveling” nurses who sign 13-week contracts and earn many times the pay they would for working full time.
Nurses have been complaining about this dynamic on social media for months now, as thousands of full-time nurses complain that they’re bearing the brunt of staffing shortages while not being fairly compensated. But finally it appears the Washington Post has caught on, publishing a report on soaring demand for traveling nurses. As WaPo explains, if 2020 was the year travel nursing took off, with 35% growth over the pre-pandemic year of 2019, this year has propelled it to new heights, with an additional 40% growth expected. WaPo says it got its number from an “independent” analysis of the health-care workforce in the US.
Traveling nurses are a hot issue in the pandemic health-care scene in the US. As an aging, burned-out and retiring nurse workforce saw unprecedented rates of employees retiring after the 2020 horrorshow, the return of hospital services that were shut down last year and a shortage of foreign recruits and nursing students have combined to leave hospitals desperately short staffed on the nursing front.
“Of all the things that keep CEOs of hospitals up at night, this is the key one,” said Chip Kahn, president and chief executive of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents about 1,000 for-profit facilities.
Nurse unions insist that the staffing crisis in health care would end instantly if hospitals raised wages to attract more full-time staff. Instead, hospitals appear content paying workers a massive premium for short-term, ad hoc, arrangements. And it’s not like demand for health-care is expected to drop off any time soon; most projections have demand growing exponentially over the coming decades.
One of the country’s largest nursing unions went a step further and blamed hospitals for creating the staffing problem by trying to keep the number of full-time nurses as small as possible.
The nation’s largest nurse union maintains that hospitals are suffering the consequences of the just-in-time staffing model they created to cut costs by keeping the number of full-time staff nurses as small as possible.
“This current staffing crisis is one of the hospital industry’s making,” Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, said in a written statement. “They need to take a long hard look at how their treatment of permanent staff and exploitation of the nursing ethos has inevitably led to this unsustainable model of staffing hospitals.”
Whether or not hospitals bear the greatest responsibility for creating these conditions, it’s ultimately the companies that arrange traveling nurse assignments that have benefited the most, financially speaking, from the boom. Prices charged to hospitals have risen alongside demand, leading some hospitals to accuse traveling nursing agencies of price gouging.
But the nurse-staffing firms insist they’re simply meeting the market’s demand.
But one area where nurses and management agree is this: “…That health-care staffing is suffering from fundamental problems that must be addressed for some measure of balance and efficiency to return.”
“We need a better way to think about how we oversee and distribute and monitor the supply of our health-care workforce,” said Bianca K. Frogner, director of the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “We don’t have any kind of centralized workforce commission in this country.”
WaPo spoke to a traveling nurse named Alex Stow for its article. Stow described the travel nursing gold rush in personalized terms, telling the reporters that he earned as much as $95 an hour – triple his full-time rate at his previous nursing job – for traveling assignments lasting roughly 13 weeks. Stow says he’s building out a van with a bed and some other equipment as he prepares to live the life of a traveling nurse.
Oftentimes, Stow’s assignments aren’t too far from his home. His current assignment is in Traverse City, Michigan is only a few hours from his old full-time job in the state capital, Lansing. Stow hopes he’ll have time to see the country when he has time off between assignments.
Even if COVID wanes in the coming months, staffing shortages likely won’t let up any time soon. The average age for ICU nurses in the US is north of 50, and many have already retired. In health care alone, 534K people left their jobs in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some left for other jobs, but others simply quit or retired. In long-term care such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, 400K health-care workers have left since the pandemic began.
US hospitals have faced periodic nurse shortages for years, and demand was high even before the pandemic, fueled by aging patients and more people with insurance, said Bart Valdez, the CEO of Ingenovis Health, which manages 6,000 travel nurses, including Stow, at hospitals across the country.
And as pressure on nurses grows, many are being forced to reckon with leaving their current jobs to consider other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities.
Asin said that “2020 was the year of, ‘Everyone to the barricades — let’s solve this national problem.’ And 2021 is the year of, ‘If this is what it’s going to be like, I’ve got to reevaluate my life.'”
On top of all this, President Biden wants to make it harder for nurses to work by mandating that they get vaccinated, or look for work elsewhere. Probably not the smartest plan right now.