In Tough Medical Times, Travel Nurses in High Demand

Andy Miller

November 17, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As a travel nurse, Denise Robinson of Atlanta takes assignments on a temporary basis in hospitals in Georgia and elsewhere.

This year she traveled to New York to work at a hospital during the height of the city's COVID-19 crisis. The workplace hazards she faced – the risk of infection in a virus hot spot — were serious. But they were balanced by a huge paycheck: $13,000 a week.

Pay for travel nurses has generally been much higher during the pandemic than in ordinary times. That's especially true for nurse practitioners, like Robinson, who works in intensive care.

The demand for travel nurses has soared since the pandemic collided with a general shortage of RNs in Georgia and nationally. Experienced nurses are needed everywhere, especially those who work with respiratory patients and in intensive care units.

Robinson has accepted other nursing assignments during the pandemic, and while the pay for those was less than she got in New York, it was still better than the usual amount for a travel nurse before the virus hit.

"Patients and nurses really need our assistance'' nowadays, she says. "Everybody is welcoming us."

There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 traveling nurses working assignments in this country on any given day. Generally, they work 13-week contracts in facilities close to their homes, but many go to distant places. When they're working far away, they can get stipends for housing and meals.

They're generally looking for jobs that feature a quality medical facility in a nice area, along with good pay, says Chris Eales, CEO of Premier Healthcare Professionals (PHP), a nurse staffing firm based in Cumming.

PHP has about 600 nurses working in contract or travel assignments in Georgia facilities. "Demand is sky high,'' Eales says.

The state of Georgia recognized the workforce need in March, when COVID outbreaks began erupting here. State officials hired a staffing firm, Jackson Healthcare, to supply many temp nurses and other health care personnel to help hospitals and nursing homes handle the surge.

The Alpharetta-based firm, after getting a no-bid contract, has supplied medical staffers to more than 50 hospitals and 80 nursing homes across Georgia over the course of the pandemic, through its subsidiary, HWL, Georgia Health News reported in September. Jackson Healthcare's extensive political connections and the way the contract was awarded raised ethical concerns, though the state and the company say the deal was handled properly.

Jackson Healthcare's HWL unit, as of Nov. 10, has received $71 million in state funds to supply health care workers around the state, officials said last week. The company says it's working with 72 health care staffing agencies to get workers to Georgia locations.

Frank Berry, head of the state's Department of Community Health, said Thursday that the agency is extending that "staff augmentation'' through Dec. 31. He said hospitals in Georgia are thankful for the help. The additional amount approved for the HWL contract is $30.5 million, the state said Monday.

A Job With Unusual Demands

Staffing companies typically take about 25 percent of the total rate paid by medical organizations, industry officials say. Still, a travel nurse working year-round can earn $100,000. With COVID assignments, that amount could swell significantly.

Travel nurses are known for their flexibility. Many of them, Eales says, are willing to works shifts that regular hospital staffers don't find very desirable, such as overnight duty.

Lynda Bailey, a travel RN who has been working in the post-anesthesia care unit at Wellstar Cobb Hospital in Austell, says there's no paid time off, and many travel nurses have to work on holidays.

"It's a whole different lifestyle. It's not for everyone,'' says Bailey. She was an RN on the staff of a South Georgia hospital until, at her mother's urging, she switched to travel nursing. She works with the staffing firm PHP, as does Robinson.

Bailey sees travel nursing assignments as learning opportunities. "I get to go to all these different facilities and still do what I love,'' she says.

 

The pandemic has now lasted for more than eight months, and hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and their employees are feeling the strain as cases surge again with the return of cold weather.

"The health care labor force continues to be under extreme duress,'' says Kelly Rakowski, an executive with AMN Healthcare, a large staffing company based in San Diego. "Average weekly hours for hospital workers appear to have reached record highs. Health systems are finding talent more and more scarce. It is no surprise that the needs are greatest in nursing, and this is also where the shortages are getting worse.''

Hospitals are dealing with increasing worker burnout, unexpected attrition, and health care workers' need for time off after months of stress and strain, Rakowski adds. "Labor demand pressure has challenged the ability of the health care staffing industry to respond. Given the surge in COVID-19 cases this winter, these trends appear likely to continue."

Bailey says many hospital nurses "are tired. They're choosing to retire or step away from bedside nursing.''

COVID-19 cases have jumped this month, in Georgia and in the nation as a whole.

One temporary health care staffing website that connects traveling nurses with staffing agencies says demand for ICU nurses more than tripled in Georgia during the first week of November, compared to the last week of October, the AJC recently reported.

Bailey normally lives in southwest Georgia, but lately she's been working in metro Atlanta hospitals, receiving a housing stipend from PHP.

Though she's technically an outsider in the facilities where she works, she says she has never experienced hostility from nurses on a hospital's staff.

"You go in with respect,'' she says. "That's their house. I'm a guest in their house.''

In fact, they'd like her to be more than a guest. "Everywhere I've worked," she says, "they want me to stay on as staff."

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.

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