Even as COVID-19 hospitalization rates have stabilized, hospitals nationwide face an ongoing staffing shortage. The mass retirement of baby boomers and widespread post-pandemic burnout among health care workers have left many workforces unequipped for the volume of patients they receive. The Department of Health and Human Services has projected this shortage will persist through 2030.
To compensate for the shortage, many facilities have ramped up their use of travel nurses—a field the pandemic pushed into the spotlight. Travel nurses worked more than 23% of all total nurse labor hours in 2022 compared to 4% in 2019. Hospitals and health care facilities bear the brunt of these expenses. In 2022, hospitals nationwide spent nearly 40% of nurse labor expenses on travel nurses, a significant increase from 5% in 2019. This is partially due to the rise in hourly rates charged by travel nurse agencies. Over the past three years, the average rate charged to hospitals for a travel nurse has increased by 213%.
Increased earnings were not the only pandemic-related change in the traveling nurse profession. Incredible Health compiled a list of statistics about how the field of travel nursing changed during the pandemic using various news and government sources. Read on to learn about the other ways the pandemic impacted this lucrative career.
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On average, travel nurses earn $3,167 weekly
Travel nurses typically earn an hourly rate through travel nursing agencies rather than a salary. On average, they work 36 hours per week and 46 weeks per year. While travel nurses earn an average of $3,167 per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earnings range between $3,000 and $7,000. This is because work assignments vary considerably in scope and location. Of note, travel nurses can incur additional personal expenses from the nature of travel-based work, such as gas and other transportation-related costs. While travel nurses have higher average earnings than nurses employed at health care facilities, the higher pay rate is intended to compensate for such expenses.
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Average annual pay for registered nurses rose by nearly 7% from 2019 to 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to a nationwide nursing shortage. Still, the demand for nurses has been growing steadily over the past 10 years owing to the retirement of the baby boomer generation and expanded health coverage nationwide. Despite this, nurse turnover rates have increased from 18% in 2019 to 22% in 2021. To remain competitive in the hiring and retention of employees, hospitals are increasing wages. In 2021, the average annual pay for registered nurses was $82,750—a 7% increase over the 2019 average of $77,460. The nursing shortage and subsequent increases in annual pay are expected to persist for at least the rest of the decade.
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Between April 2021 and September 2021, demand for travel nurses more than quadrupled
Since the pandemic began, the demand for travel nurses has become closely linked to COVID-19 hospitalization rates. The need for travel nurses peaked between April 2021 and September 2021—the same time period that also saw the highest number of hospitalizations from the delta variant, according to data from Aya Healthcare. However, the demand has since trended downward. Due to stabilized COVID-19 hospitalization rates and depletion of related government funding, travel nursing contracts are becoming less abundant than they were during the pandemic. Still, the profession is projected to continue growing. While travel nurses currently comprise just 1% of the nursing profession, this is expected to grow to 23.4% by 2028.
Travel nurse pay not only includes a salary, but often additional bonuses and stipends
Because the nature of travel nursing often results in increased costs in living accommodations, agencies often include stipends in contracts. These are intended to reimburse for hotel, travel, and meal costs. Alternatively, some travel nurse companies provide their own housing or simply offer increased wages to compensate for living expenses. The amount of a stipend varies by agency, but the General Service Administration determines the maximum stipend allowable based on the local cost of living. Travel nurses also frequently receive crisis pay—additional pay for workers required to work extra hours or in hazardous conditions.
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Some travel nurse jobs do not offer health care and retirement benefits due to the short time period of contracts
Though travel nurses typically enjoy higher pay, there are some notable financial drawbacks to the nature of the gig. Assignments, on average, last 13 weeks, although this can vary considerably depending on facility need. Because travel nurses are usually paid as contractors, they often forgo employer benefits including health care insurance, paid time off, short-term disability coverage, and retirement. Insurance and retirement benefits are still available to subscribers at their own cost, independent of their employers, though. Additionally, travel nurses enjoy holiday and overtime pay rates at 1.5 times their taxable hourly wage.
The Pitfalls and Price of Being a Travel Nurse
There are more downsides to being a travel nurse than having to pay for gas or sacrificing health benefits. Interviews with well-seasoned travelers yield a litany of eye-opening details and downsides, including:
- Landing in a city or town where you know absolutely nobody, have no idea where to find the nearest market or mall, all with just two days notice
- Having to identify the hotel with the amenities you want at the lowest price, which may involve jumping from one location to another until you find the best option. A common complaint is the difficulty in finding a hotel that provides kitchen facilities: with no way to cook, nurses are forced to purchase expensive take-out meals
- Missing out on family celebrations, including holidays, kids’ sporting events and concerts, special birthdays and anniversaries, and parent-teacher meetings.
- Losing the opportunity to gain tenure leading to a leadership position at a single facility
- Losing the collegiality and familial sense that comes with working at the same facility for years
In addition to what they give up, given the chance to vent, travel nurses note that upon their arrival they are assigned to the worst patients and schedules, and treated with disdain, disapproval, and disrespect by existing staff. They need to quickly get up to speed on the hospital’s particular processes while working hard to offset the resentment and lack of respect for their skills that staff nurses often display. Many report having their skills, experience, or education questioned, and though they are quickly able to prove themselves, the first several days can be very difficult. Rather than being embraced for the relief that they provide, they are commonly given a cold shoulder, especially by staff who are well aware that they are being paid significantly higher hourly wages than they are receiving.