Demand for Traveling Nurses Continues High

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Lindsay Rockefeller of Rochester is a nurse at Rochester General Hospital. For a brief period a few years ago she worked as a traveling nurse. She expressed mixed feelings about travel nursing. “I prefer an environment where I know what to expect.”

The pandemic has highlighted traveling nurses as one way hospitals address worker shortages and increased demand for care. 

The effects of staffing with traveling nurses extend from the healthcare provider to the other providers to the patients. 

Traveling nurses do not work directly for the healthcare provider, such as the local hospital. Like a temporary agency, they work for a third party and receive their pay from the third party. 

The concept may seem especially appealing for nurses who want to work short-term in different cities and experience the culture and entertainment of various regions. 

Their higher pay compared with staff nurses draws many nurses. For example, states that the 1,453 traveling nurses working in Monroe County make an average salary of $72,768, which is comparable to a directly employed nurse. But the top 10% earning traveling nurses can make $121,000 annually.  

Their status as traveling nurses — even if they live locally — can mean that healthcare organizations retain flexibility for their staffing needs. 

Travel nursing also has its downsides. Uprooting every few weeks or months to work elsewhere disrupts family life. The stress of living elsewhere temporarily could prove problematic for nurses who travel only for the higher payrate and are not as interested in tourism. 

The cost for healthcare organizations will be higher by hiring through a third party, making hospital budgets tighter, according to a Sept. 15, 2021 story for NBC news by Leticia Miranda. She further stated that the salary discrepancies between travel nursing (between $5,800 and even $9,562 weekly) and working for a rural hospital ($1,346) has caused rural hospitals to struggle to compete. 

Aya Healthcare, a San Diego based staffing provider, advertises travel nursing jobs at up to $6,950 per week, more than five times the rates offered by many rural hospitals. Not all travel nurses travel far away from home. Some can find assignments within a commutable distance, making travel nursing a much more financially appealing option.

The higher wage attracted Lindsay Rockefeller of Rochester to try travel nursing through Adventis Medical in 2020. The lure of $1,800 to $4,000 a week — about double of what the RN makes as a staff nurse at Rochester General Hospital’s ER — appealed to her. The pandemic cut short her travel nursing career and she feels it has contributed to the rise of travel nursing. 

“Travel nurses help the workload,” she said. “We are extremely short staffed and have half travelers and half staff nurses. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to run as many emergency rooms as we do now.”

She expressed mixed feelings about travel nursing. While the higher payrate was nice, she wanted to stay in Rochester where she was born and raised and worked for 14 years. 

“I love this hospital,” she said. “I love where I am and I’m loyal to the company. I’m comfortable with my coworkers and managers. I prefer an environment where I know what to expect. Every hospital has different protocols. We get some travel nurses in who aren’t familiar with our protocols.”

As travel nurses work in a variety of locations, they must acclimate themselves to the in-house procedures and policies. This can negatively affect continuity of care. While their nursing skills must equate those of staffers, they lack the familiarity inherent in a group of long-term coworkers. 

“You want to work like a well-oiled machine,” Rockefeller said. “With travel nurses who come in and leave, no one gets to know each other. There’s no efficiency. Things are moving slower. Now with my coworkers, the staff people, we don’t have to even speak in the room.”

Although travel nurses receive health insurance and other typical benefits from their employers, Rockefeller said that pensions are not part of the package. Although that helped draw her back to staff nursing, she said that better benefits and a higher payrate would help more retain more staff nurses.

“That way, you wouldn’t have to bleed more money into travel nurses,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of people to travel nursing.”