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As the pandemic began to unfold, Veronica O’Kane was working as an ICU nurse in Southfield, Michigan. She was dealing with some pretty serious stuff and not sure she was being fairly compensated.
“I didn’t really feel like I was making much money at all,” she said. “I was just always living paycheck to paycheck, and kind of starting to drown in debt a little bit.”
Because of her work tending to COVID-19 patients, she wasn’t able to see her family and friends. O’Kane had met travel nurses — they made more money and received housing and meal stipends.
So, she became a travel nurse. She worked for a few weeks in Maryland. Then she did a longer stint in Texas. Now she’s working in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As the pandemic keeps surging in different places, her pay keeps climbing. She’s now making $66 an hour. It’s double what she was earning in the spring.
Travel nurses have been part of the health care system for decades. Some were just seeking adventure, some flexibility.
Right now, there are an estimated 50,000 travel nurses in the U.S. It’s a business — agencies and brokerage firms match professionals with hospitals that are short on specialized care staff.
Robert Longyear is a vice president at Wanderly, a digital marketplace for health care professionals. He said the company regularly hears: “ ‘We need more clinicians to work these ventilators, need more clinicians to manage these patients.’ Now, he said, “we’ve run into a situation where hospitals say, ‘We cannot find clinicians to do this.’ ”
Health care systems and hospitals generally operate on razor-thin margins. Many have struggled with staffing shortages and budget shortfalls since the ’90s, using temp workers to fill the gaps. Now, as the pressure of the pandemic increases the urgent need for trained staff, workers’ pay keeps rising, too.
Hospitals need to compete for these skilled personnel. Some are paying travel nurses $8,000 a week.
Yet amid the need there is also tension, according to Rebecca Givan, a labor studies and employment relations professor at Rutgers.
“We have long-term staff, especially during the pandemic, doing the best they can under really difficult circumstances. And often their hospital management is saying no when they asked for, you know, [personal protective equipment] or a raise or hazard pay,” Givan said. “Then they see these travelers come in, making multiples of their salaries, and it can be very, very frustrating.”
Beyond the pay gap, there is another source of frustration. Staff nurses may think that travel nurses don’t know their hospitals’ systems or the communities they’re working in.
Josh Ramirez left his staff job at a northwest Indiana hospital, connected with an agency and became a travel nurse. He was in New York in the spring and is now in San Diego, California.
“It’s snide comments, kind of, not directly to your face but maybe then talking to other staff nurses about you, but you can still hear,” he said.
The high wages travel nurses are now commanding can also cause problems for smaller facilities that depend on them. Tessa Johnson, a nurse in rural Dickinson, North Dakota, works at a long-term care home. Hiring travel nurses before the pandemic was fairly easy. She said it’s different now.
“They leave quickly, or they find another assignment or they don’t show up. And I think it’s just because there’s so much demand, they can go anywhere. Everybody needs them,” she said.
And that demand doesn’t seem to be slowing.
As for Veronica O’Kane, the work has been taxing and isolating. But also rewarding … personally and financially.
“There’s definitely been some moments where I’m like, is it really worth it? Just because I’ve had some really, you know, low moments, and we’re dealing with death every single day. But for me, for sure, the money is definitely an incentive and motivation,” she said.
Before she became a travel nurse, O’Kane said, she had around $40,000 in debt. With the money she’s earned during the pandemic, she’s paid off nearly all of it.
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