The demand for travel nurses has been off the charts since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but those days may be coming to an end. Travel nurses stand to make sometimes double, if not triple, what regular nurses make on the job. And hospitals all over the country are scaling back their use of travel nurses to reduce expenses.
Lots of nurses have hit the road in hopes of making more money but some are waking up to a grim new reality. Companies are canceling their contracts at the last minute, leaving them high and dry in an unfamiliar area.
Contracts Cut Short
Tiffanie Jones, a nurse from Tampa, Florida, recently packed up her life to drive to Cheyenne, Wyoming when she found out her travel nurse contract had been canceled.
She found a Facebook group for travel nurses and quickly realized she wasn’t alone. Hundreds of travel nurses reported similar experiences. Others said their rates were cut by as much as 50% mid-contract.
“One lady packed up her whole family and was canceled during orientation,” said Jones.
Travel nurses were once seen as the backbone of the healthcare industry, but they are also costly and usually only allowed to do certain tasks, which can put added pressure on permanent staff members.
Hospitals typically have no choice but to hire temporary nurses when demand for healthcare services exceeds current capacity or their nurses call out sick or go on strike, but hospitalization rates are stabilizing across the country, which has led to a dramatic decline in the number of travel nursing contracts nationwide.
Demand for travel nurses dropped by around 33% in the month leading up to April 10, according to data from staffing agency Aya Healthcare, although demand has rebounded slightly in recent weeks.
COVID-relief funds are also drying up, and hospitals can’t afford to pay for travel nurses out of pocket.
Dr. John Hunter, CEO of OHSU Health, recently canceled a contract for 100 travel nurses after the Governor of Oregon declared an end to the public health crisis. COVID-19 numbers remain low in the state and hospitals have been able to hire more full-time staff members, which means Oregon won’t be hiring more travel nurses any time soon.
Hunter describes the rapid decline in demand for travel nurses as “a bursting of the bubble.”
“It has been very expensive,” he added. His hospital recently negotiated with the travel nurse agency to reduce salaries by as much as 50%.
But the sudden drop in pay can come as a shock to existing travel nurses.
RN Jessica Campbell recently decided to extend her 13-week contract as a travel nurse in Illinois. But about a week into her latest contract, the agency called her and said she would receive a $10 per hour pay cut and that she could take it or leave it.
“I ended up accepting it because I felt like I had no other option,” Campbell said.
The situation has gotten so bad that a law firm in Kansas City, Missouri is currently weighing whether to file a lawsuit against 35 travel nursing agencies for breach of contract. Austin Moore, an attorney at Stueve Siegel Hanson, accused these companies of “committing outright fraud” through what he sees as bait-and-switch maneuvers on travel nursing contracts.
The firm recently launched an open investigation into the matter and their phones have been ringing off the hook ever since.
“Nobody has experienced it like this — historically, contracts have been honored,” Moore said.
Stephen Dwyer, senior vice president and chief legal and operating officer of the American Staffing Association, the trade group that represents the travel nursing industry, responded to the inquiry in email.
“As market conditions change, hospitals and other healthcare facilities may change the terms of travel nurse contracts,” he said. “For rate reductions or contract cancellations that take place mid-assignment, staffing companies often recommend advance notice.”
Moore said that these agencies can often take advantage of travel nurses by canceling their contracts last minute or bullying them into taking a lower rate of pay. He said the terms and conditions vary, but in most cases the agency is likely breaching its contract.
Travel nursing agencies have also posted record profits throughout the pandemic.
Cross Country Healthcare, a publicly traded company that staffs travel nurses, posted a profit of $132 million in 2021, compared with a loss of $13 million the previous year and even bigger losses in 2019.
After seeing her contract get canceled, Jones started asking herself how much a nurse is really worth.
She misses the extra pay she received on the road. As a travel nurse, she said she “could breathe financially for the first time in years,” making nearly twice what she was making as a regular RN.
“It’s a tough profession,” she said. “We love doing it, but we have bills to pay, too.”