US travel nurses are being offered more than $10,000 a week

Travel nurses - who aren't attached to a single hospital and work on short-term contracts - traditionally make up about 3 or 4 per cent of overall nursing staff.
Travel nurses - who aren't attached to a single hospital and work on short-term contracts - traditionally make up about 3 or 4 per cent of overall nursing staff.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - With the economy reopening and labour scarce, all kinds of US workers have been getting pay raises. Some of the biggest are going to a group that's on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19: travel nurses.

There are about 30,000 open positions for travel nurses nationwide, according to data from SimpliFi, a health-care staffing firm. That's up some 30 per cent from last winter's peak, and still climbing. Salaries have jumped too, with rates as high as US$8,000 ($10,746) a week advertised for a three-month assignment.

Demand for nurses has spiked multiple times during the 18 months of the pandemic, reaching new highs with the current spread of the delta variant. Meanwhile, the strain of dealing with the outbreak has led many nurses to quit the profession, and hospitals and other health-care providers are struggling to fill permanent positions -- leaving them more dependent on temporary employees.

Travel nurses - who aren't attached to a single hospital and work on short-term contracts - traditionally make up about 3 or 4 per cent of overall nursing staff, according to Mr James Quick, president of SimpliFi. "It's now in the 8 to 10 per cent range," he said. "That's being driven by demand."

Mr Quick says that billing rates for travel nurses were up more than 40 per cent in August from a year earlier, while for emergency-room specialists the jump was 60 per cent. The states with the most openings for travel nurses are Florida (which has about one-sixth of the nation's hospitalized Covid-19 patients), Texas and California.

Businesses that cater to this demand are making money. At AMN Healthcare Services Inc, the nation's largest medical staffing firm, second-quarter revenue climbed more than 40 per cent from a year earlier -- and the company said bookings of nurses in July were double the April-June level.

"We had another record high for average travelers on assignment," chief executive Susan Salka said on a call to investors. She said the pandemic has created both short-term and permanent shifts in the workforce that "increased our opportunity."

Much of the demand is coming from emergency rooms. Six months ago, bookings for emergency-room specialists accounted for 5 per cent of travel-nurse recruitment, according to SimpliFi. Now it's more like 15 per cent.

That's not just because of the delta variant. There's also a backlog of elective surgeries from earlier in the pandemic. It could take 18 months to clear it, according to Mr Bart Valdez, chief executive of a group of health-care personnel companies that includes Fastaff Travel Nursing and US Nursing.

"Folks are getting more comfortable going back to hospitals," he said. "So hospitals are responding by scheduling more procedures."

Natural disasters like Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana on Sunday, also tend to trigger strong demand for travel nurses, according to Ms Kathy Kohnke, senior vice-president at Fastaff.

She said her company already has a lot of staffers in New Orleans dealing with the pandemic, and expects the need for nurses there will increase "exponentially."

"Typically during the arrival of a hurricane, hospitals discharge as many patients as possible," Ms Kohnke said. "Due to Covid, that wasn't an option."

While travel nurses are in many cases only a short-term fix for hospitals struggling with the pandemic, their role in the US health-care system had been expanding for several years before that.

Nurses tend to a Covid-19 patient inside the intensive care unit at Adventist Health in Sonora, California on Aug 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP 

That's partly because Americans are living more transient lives, according to Mr Joel Tremblay, chief executive of health-care staffing firm Medical Solutions.

He gives the example of so-called "snowbirds" who spend the winter in warmer southern states -- bringing a temporary influx of patients to hospitals there. "It wouldn't make sense for them to have permanent employees working year-round," Mr Tremblay said.

The pandemic has amplified those trends. The surge in patient numbers, and the difficulty retaining permanent staff, means demand for temporary travel nurses will likely stay strong into next year, industry executives say.

That will keep wages high, said Mr Tim McKenzie, chief executive of Travel Nurse Across America. "It's going to be a long time before pay rates really get back to what would have been traditionally normal."

If the money nowadays is good, the work is extremely challenging - leading many employers of travel nurses to offer enhanced mental-health benefits as well as higher pay.

"I was in Lansing, Michigan and you'd have three people dead in just the first four hours of the shift," said Ms Lydia Mobley, a travel nurse with Fastaff. "Over the winter we ran out of body bags. It's super hard, it's mentally exhausting."

Mr Grover Nicodemus Street, whose book "Chasing the Surge" chronicles his experience as a travel nurse in a series of Covid-19 hotspots, says nurses everywhere are burned out. "They're quitting the industry left and right."