My favorite part about going on a trip is coming home. I’m not opposed to traveling and have been fortunate to visit incredible cities and beautiful beaches, but my stampless passport is collecting dust in my nightstand (I think) and I waited to see the Harlem Globetrotters until they played five miles from my house. So, no, I wouldn’t be interested in bouncing around from gig to gig as a travel nurse — even though the idea does sounds enticing.
Travel nurse Shelley Harris, who’s on our cover with her good girl Nugget, recently spoke to me on an 80-degree day in Puerto Rico, where she and her husband have been living on assignment for the past three months. Traveling works for Shelley. She’s always done it to satisfy her wanderlust, not for the extra money she’s earning from hospitals desperate to remain operational during the national nursing shortage.
Travel nurses can easily make double the amount they were earning before the pandemic —and some are taking home much more. It’s difficult to blame nurses who jump at the opportunity to triple or quadruple their salaries. They’re in high demand and earning what the market will bear. Some full-time nurses are bitter about working alongside a peer who’s making way more for the same work. It’s difficult to blame them, too.
The money might be good, but travel nurses aren’t living on easy street. The constant packing and moving can be draining. Travelers parachute into established teams as an outsider and hopefully leave as a respected colleague or, if they’re lucky, a trusted friend.
Annie Maynard, a travel nurse and mother of five young children, was trying to corral her 10-month-old daughter when we connected over the phone last month. She was always interested in traveling and saw this unprecedented time in health care as an opportunity to give it a try.
When elective procedures in the hospital where she worked full-time shut down during the pandemic, she wanted to go where her skills were needed and signed on for a three-days-a-week travel job at Unity Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., two hours from her home.
Annie fully admits the money was too good to pass up for her young family. She also admits that when she sets her mind to do something, she’ll figure out a way to make it work, even if it means commuting four hours a day to work.
During the assignment at Unity, Annie’s alarm would go off at 3:45 a.m. and she’d be on the road 45 minutes later in order to arrive at the hospital in time for her 12-hour shift, which began at 7:00 a.m. Most nights, she’d pull into her driveway around 10 p.m., pack lunches for her kids and collapse into bed. A few hours later, she’d do it again.
Annie is quick to point out that no one forced her to drive hundreds of miles each day, but she didn’t become a travel nurse for the glamour of the gig. She’s grinding out a living for her family.
Travel nurses are commanding such high rates because they’re desperately needed. For the foreseeable future, travelers will continue to earn more than their full-time peers, who will continue to express their frustration with the apparent inequity of the situation. Healthcare leaders have also expressed their displeasure with the rates nurse agencies are charging, but continue to pay them because the staffing shortage has forced their hands.
The issue is layered and complex, but blame the broken system, not the travelers who continue to show up and scrub in. The national staffing crisis will ultimately be resolved by recruiting more nurses to the bedside, not by alienating the dedicated professionals who are already there. OSM