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Even before the pandemic, the U.S. faced a nursing shortage. As a result, understaffed hospitals and other facilities have relied on travel nurses to fill their staffing needs. COVID-19 has exacerbated the staffing shortages across the country. With the increased demand for nurses, travel nurse salaries for some specialities have increased 50%—nurses in-demand specialties can command rates of more than $10,000 per week.
For many full-time nurses, the increased pay as well as a sense of duty are tempting reasons to consider traveling. However, leaving a full-time position for travel nursing is daunting during a pandemic, so what should you know if you’re thinking about traveling? From finding an assignment to negotiating your salary, we asked four experienced travel nurses for advice on navigating the pandemic.
Kim Darpoh is an emergency department RN at a hospital in Atlanta and has her own coaching service. She graduated from Chamberlain College of Nursing in 2017 with a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing.
Kylee Nelson is a travel NICU RN and has over five years of experience working with premature babies. She also has her own website to help other travel nurses from burnout.
Sierra Levin is a travel nurse and specializes in pediatric ICU. She went to college in Philadelphia and has over two years of experience in travelf nursing.
What is the most important thing new travel nurses need to know about traveling during the pandemic?
ReyAnn Moya: The most important details to know are: first, why you are doing it? Second, to ensure you have enough experience in nursing and in your specialty. Lastly, the safety of the hospital and the risk of what the environment you may be working in.
During the pandemic, hospitals are operating under very high pressure with minimal resources and staff. As a result, the most important point to consider is your level of experience. You may only get one to two days of orientation before you hit the ground running
Kim Darpoh: It’s important to research the facilities that you are interested in. Many new travel nurses are shocked by the conditions of the facilities they work in. It's important to ask yourself, am I working in a safe environment? In my opinion, it's not worth risking your RN license for the love of money.
Kylee Nelson: As a new travel nurse, it's imperative to know that what we're dealing with right now is unprecedented. If your experience isn't what you thought it would be, I want you to be mindful that this isn't what travel nursing is normally like. Especially now, it's important that you feel safe at your hospital and that you're sticking up for yourself if you fear that your license could be in danger.
Sierra Levin: Be comfortable being alone and take it easy on yourself. It is a new area and you are dealing with things that you’ve never had to deal with as a staff nurse.It tends to be harder to make friends as a traveler because of the nature of the work and the short-term placement. That being said, there is a tight knit travel community which has been developing over the years. With the advancement of social media and apps such as Medventure, it’s easier to meet other travelers because we are all looking to meet other travelers.
When you are starting out, ask all the questions that you may have. We've all had the same questions. So don't be afraid to reach out to other travelers. Use your resources to find out everything that you need to know about where you are going or what you should do or how you can find other resources.
Many new travel nurses are shocked by the conditions of the facilities they work in. It's important to ask yourself, am I working in a safe environment? In my opinion, it's not worth risking your RN license for the love of money.
How should new travel nurses find assignments?
R.M: I use agencies such as NurseFly, Wanderly and Trusted Health for their weekly emails on what assignments are high paying or fit the criteria that I provided in my profile. Not only does it help me find assignments, but it gives me an overall sense of what the market looks like and what I should be looking for or expecting for upcoming contracts, or how in need travel nurses are in specific areas.
K.N: Talk to other travel nurses and see what recruiters/companies they recommend. Read blogs, search Pinterest, and use Google. Read reviews and follow your gut instinct. If you talk to a company and don't like what they are about, it's okay to walk away. Keep searching until you find a recruiter that you click with.
S.L: If you are a pediatric nurse, it may not be the best time to start right now because the jobs are so slim. The censuses are low in the hospital because kids are not getting as sick as they usually do every year because everybody's wearing marks. Pediatric nurses are struggling to find jobs and then keep those jobs because a lot of contracts are being canceled. It's easier if you are an adult nurse like Med Surg, ICU or an ER nurse. There are more jobs as more adults are getting sick than kids except for COVID.
There's existing travelers in the market looking for jobs which makes it hard. Many places will not hire travel nurses who do not have previous experience. If you are a new traveler going up against another pediatric traveler, who's been traveling for five years, it is unlikely you will be hired over that five-year nurse.
It's a lot riskier for new travelers to come, get a job and not get their contract canceled. Until it slows down and jobs are opening back up again, it is better to stick with your permit job for now. So then you will have an income versus traveling, work for two weeks and then face a cancelled contract.
What are some tips to make the most money as a travel nurse?
R.M: Understand how pay breakdown works (taxed vs non-taxed money) and how to maximize your take home earnings. Low taxable earnings and high non-taxable stipends.
Live minimally, or as minimal as possible. Minimalism may not be for everyone but try to have less items in comparison to where you live permanently. A minimalist approach can help you save money and space. You may come to realize how much of your money is spent on unnecessary items over time.
Save and invest the money you make on a contract (build a budget!) Most new and experienced travelers become accustomed to the new income and unfortunately do not save their money.
K.N: Do your research and know what you're talking about. Learn simple terminology such as "bill rate", "taxable income", "non-taxable" income, etc, and understand how your pay package is broken down. This will help you negotiate for more and ultimately make more money.
K.D: For housing, Airbnb and short-term apartments for rent are the best options. Try to find a place that is close to the facility you'll be working at.
S.L: Many recruiters will say not to work with other recruiters. However, the more recruiters you have from different agencies, the more leverage you will have. In order to make sure you are getting the best pay, look at jobs and match pays for multiple different companies for the same job. Avoid limiting yourself to one recruiter for everything but that being said, avoid misusing the recruiters because they are also trying to help you.
There are resources where you can compare pay packages. Never take what's given to you upfront without trying to pull in everything such as reimbursement for travel, your licensure, onboarding and fingerprinting. A good website is Wanderly where you can compare pay packages and remain anonymous with the recruiters until you are ready to submit.
For companies you've heard before, go to their pages and look at what jobs they have. On Facebook, there's a bunch of different travel nurse groups where you can see different jobs. Do your own research so you can better compare what the rates are.
There’s also an added pay that you can get as it’s not taken out of your weekly pay. There's a government site, called GSA where it tells you legally what they're allowed to give you per stipend. This can be helpful if you think you're getting low-balled for your pay.
How do you think COVID-19 will change travel nursing?
R.M: As seen during the pandemic, the market had ebbed and flowed from when it began to where we are now. The market may remain volatile for a while until the U.S. has a better control on COVID-19 and vaccinating people. I also foresee more permanent staff leaving their jobs for travel nursing, due to the freedom, no hospital politics, increase in pay and overall adventure. Depending on what the market looks like after COVID, applying for a job may become more competitive.
K.N: Travel nurses are being paid an exorbitant amount of money to help out hospitals in need. I predict we will see a sharp drop in bill rates once the pandemic is over, but things will eventually pick back up and go back to normal. I am worried that nurses as a whole will be burned out and leave the bedside. If this happens, I predict that the need for travelers will be at an all-time high which would be great for the industry.
S.L: The pay may not be the same as the travel nurse market gets more saturated. During the pandemic, we are seeing crazy high paid jobs with insane hours. I have a friend in L.A. who makes $7,000 a week, but she's working 48 hours a week floating but at the expense of our mental health. People are getting excited by these high figures and want to join the market resulting in more saturation.This may or may not make it harder for new nurses to join in due to competition between experienced nurses and new nurses with hospitals who may not hire new travelers. On the flip side, maybe there will be more job opportunities with more permanent staff leaving to travel.
Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.