Travel nurses have been around for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought this subset of nurses into the spotlight more than ever before. Heading into 2023, the demand and wages that have defined the profession for the past few years remain high, but there’s more to the picture in the year ahead.
Demand and Wages Remain High
Although the demand for travel nurses is far from what it was in the early months of the pandemic, several factors have kept demand relatively high. There’s still a staffing shortage, with many professionals exiting the field due to burnout and nursing schools turning away applicants due to faculty shortages. In fact, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools turned away nearly 92,000 qualified applicants in 2021 due to faculty shortages, budget constraints, lack of classrooms and clinical sites, and more.
On top of these factors affecting the profession at large, the latter half of 2022 saw new stresses introduced into a healthcare system already stretched to the breaking point. The “triple-demic” hit the U.S. hard this fall and winter, with simultaneous surges in COVID, a particularly nasty strain of seasonal flu, and RSV wreaking havoc on communities (and healthcare providers) across the country.
With all of these stressors on the system, healthcare (in general) has acquiesced with hiring travel nurses. Although wages aren’t as high as they were during the initial peak of the pandemic, where some travel nurses were commanding salaries up to $6,000 a week, pay is still high for these in-demand nurses. One travel nurse staffing firm, Focus Staff, reports that travel nurses are currently earning around $3,000 per week, which works out to approximately $156,000 annual pay. If healthcare centers don’t pay these higher rates year-round, only during short-term, on-demand contracts (and without having to worry about paying benefits), the use of travel nurses can be more budget-neutral while keeping opportunities open.
Successfully recruiting travel nurses will require healthcare organizations to find room in their budgets for competitive pay, as well as a positive work environment even for these temporary staff members. More importantly, those paychecks and promises need to remain reliable.
It’s Not All Smooth Sailing
As any travel nurse will tell you, the profession isn’t all about high pay and exciting travel. Moving around for work is stressful in any profession; it’s not easy to be away from home, then barely have time to settle into a new location before your few months are up and you’re on to the next stop. Add the high pressure of being in healthcare at this particularly difficult time, and travel nursing can be its own kind of challenge.
There also can be unexpected hurdles even when it comes to that promised high pay. Class-action lawsuits are currently pending against four major travel nurse staffing agencies, where nurses allege “bait and switch” contracts where they’re offered high rates to sign on, then have their rates suddenly slashed in the aftermath. The contract “at will” nature of travel nursing work means that loopholes and discrepancies like this aren’t entirely unusual, which means that agencies, facilities, and nurses alike may find themselves frustrated when demand dips and budgets do too.
Heading in 2023, expect more caution from many nurses as they look to avoid these “surprise” cuts. They may be warier of recruiters, especially those who make big promises, and they’re likely to have more questions (or even negotiations) about facility practices and culture before they take the job. Healthcare organizations may look for better ways to handle their relationships with travel nurses, too. After all, the staffing shortage remains, and finding ways to build bridges instead of burn them is critical for hospital success and for quality patient care.
We recognize the challenges that our clients face on a daily basis and have worked hard provide interim help for clinical and administrative roles with the lowest possible margins in the business. In charging less, we are cautiously optimistic that reimbursement rates will adjust favorably and look to long-term relationships with our clients whether it be for an immediate need, or more of a strategic partnership to promote their success in the future.
By Tom Zeleny, NHA