Going back to staff job 'just not an option': High travel nurse pay — up to $8K a week — worsens staff shortages

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Pay rate for travel nurses has risen rapidly during the pandemic, driven by demand and paid for in part with federal emergency funding, exacerbating an already existing nursing shortage, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Before the pandemic, Ivette Palomeque, RN, worked as a staff intensive care nurse at Houston-based Memorial Hermann Health System and made $45 an hour. Now, Ms. Palomeque earns $120 an hour working as a travel nurse in a McAllen,Texas-based ICU, the latest travel position she's held.  

She intends to work high-paid crisis contracts as long as possible. Nursing pay may never be this high again and chronic understaffing has hurt working conditions for staff nurses, Ms. Palomeque told the Journal.

"Going back to a staff job is just not an option," Ms. Palomeque told the Journal. "Absolutely not."

In December 2019, average total weekly wages for a travel nurse were about $1,600, according to data from healthcare recruiting company Vivian Health. A year later, the weekly average pay was more than $3,500. Pay rates declined after the winter peak, but are rising again as the delta variant drives COVID-19 cases. Average weekly wages for a nurse with a travel contract rose to $2,597 in early August, the highest since February, according to Vivian Health data cited by the Journal.

There are currently about 30,000 open travel nurse positions across the U.S., up about 30 percent from last winter's peak, according to data from healthcare staffing firm SimpliFi, as reported by Bloomberg. Some positions are seeing pay rates as high as $8,000 a week for a three-month assignment, according to Bloomberg.

Houston-based Harris Health System, with about 2,200 bedside nursing positions, is reporting a 22 percent vacancy rate for the roles, up from 8 percent pre-pandemic. The system said in mid-August that it would boost pay for emergency and ICU nurses to $140 an hour until staffing levels improve.

"The hospital is not going to be able to survive on hiring travel nurses in perpetuity," said Maureen Padilla, DNP, RN, senior vice president for nursing services at Harris Health.

The nurse shortage is creating a skills gap at Harris Health, Dr. Padilla said, explaining that inexperienced nurses must help with more complex care.

The added pressure from the pandemic and higher pay rates for travel nurses could prompt a permanent reset of wages for all nurses, said April Kapu, DNP, RN, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

"This pandemic has highlighted how important nurses are to the workforce, so bringing their pay in alignment with the market is more important than ever, because nurses are going to expect that," Dr. Kapu said.

 

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