Sophia Khawly
Sophia Khawly
May 11, 2020 - 5 min read

Crossing The Picket Line As a Travel Nurse

A labor dispute at a hospital is much different than a labor dispute at a corporation. While the grievances of striking nurses might be similar (poor working conditions, low pay, etc), the ramifications are much more severe, even deadly.

Patients still need care — so hospitals must find a way to keep the hospital running. Some hospitals do this by bringing on travel nurses to fill these positions. Here’s what you need to know about working at a striking hospital.

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The Moral Dilemma

One travel nurse — we’ll call her Anne — shared her experience about covering a shortage during a labor strike in Minnesota. She had already been licensed in Minnesota and was recruited to begin work within a few days. Since the hospital was desperate for help, the credentialing process happened quicker than usual.

At first, she struggled with feeling like a traitor. Her fellow nurses were on strike, demanding safer work environments, better nurse-to-patient ratios, and increased pay. As nurses, we are all familiar with these issues. That’s what made the choice to take over their shifts so difficult. It felt like she wasn’t supporting those nurses the way she should.

To get past these feelings, she thought about the patients. She didn’t want those patients to become innocent casualties of the labor dispute. In the end, she realized for her, patients would come first. By ensuring quality patient care was met, she felt she was acting professionally and morally responsible.

Besides, the time and money the hospital must spend in increased staffing costs and administrative headaches is a powerful incentive to quickly seek an agreement with the staff nurses.

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How Does A Nursing Strike Work?

Over the last decade, there have been almost 40 major labor strikes involving nurses. These disputes often involved a collective bargaining agreement or labor contract which was up for renewal.

Negotiations on these multi-year contracts can break down when the two sides aren’t able to come up with an acceptable compromise. At that point, the union holds a vote on whether or not to strike. Sometimes, the hospital initiates a lockout to gain a more favorable bargaining position.

Unions and hospitals are legally required to give at least 10 days notice of a strike or lockout. This gives both parties a deadline to negotiate an agreement or make arrangements for patient transfer and continuing care with the use of temporary staff.

During the strike, staff nurses do not receive pay. Unions advise their members not to use vacation or sick time either. Some unions may maintain strike funds in order to support their members during the strike, but these distributions are normally quite small.

First Days Of A Strike

For nurses like Anne who choose to provide care during these tension-filled times, the experience can be rather difficult, and at times, overwhelming.

When Anne arrived in Minnesota, the staffing company arranged for buses to pick up groups of travel nurses and drop them off at their hotel. The bustling environment resembled a work camp and had essentially been turned into a travel nurse processing unit.

For the next two days, the travel nurses were administered drug tests and physical exams, processed I-9 forms, completed continuing education classes, and were prepped for their first day of work.

On that first day, the travel nurses arrived at their designated hospitals via bus. As Anne rode to work on her bus, all she saw outside were picketers in red shirts. As the travel nurses passed by, the strikers shook their heads and fists at them.

At first, it was overwhelming to ride past the strikers each morning, but after a while, it became easier. The patients would occasionally ask questions, but the travel nurses had been given scripted responses to use by the hospital administration.

This helped the nurses maintain a diplomatic stance and avoid added stress to the patients.

How To Survive A Strike as a Travel Nurse

During a strike, safety is a top priority. Tempers can flare and the frustration from both sides can lead to a dangerous environment if you’re working for a striking hospital. Here are a few tips for maintaining your safety:

  1. Always travel in pairs. You’re a much bigger target than if you are alone.
  2. Don’t wear your ID or scrubs out in public, if possible.
  3. Keep a professional distance from hospital staff who are not striking. They may not be allowed to strike and could pass on information about you to striking nurses.
  4. Stick to the script. It’s easy to get sucked into conversations about the strike with outsiders, but is better for you in the long run if you stay out of the discussion.
  5. Don’t divulge where you’re staying. Striking nurses may end up picketing at your hotel after hours.

Strike Work Is Hard

Working as a travel nurse to provide coverage during a nursing strike is actually pretty tough. Most hospital staff nurses are used to working three shifts a week with four days off. During a strike, the hospital is desperate for help. Travel nurses often have to work six 12-hour shifts per week. Some agencies make you sign a contract requiring you to work 72 hours a week. This means you may only get one day off!

Needless to say, nursing exhaustion is a definite worry.

It can feel like you’re just living and breathing work during your assignment. You don’t have much time to do anything but eat, sleep, and work. But the increased pay may be significant enough to allow you take several months off at the end of the assignment.

The Uncertainty of A Strike Assignment

There is no clear length of assignment since strikes are open-ended. Some travel nurses end up having their contracts canceled by the end of orientation because the two sides have come to a last-minute agreement.

Or, assignments could last much longer.

Anne flew to Minnesota thinking she would only be there for one week, but ended up being there for four months. It financially made sense to stay, so her boyfriend flew out to visit her every other weekend. Even at the end of a strike, some nurses end up quitting and do not return. So the hospital may offer an extended contract to the travel nurses at the same rate as strike coverage.

It’s important to stay in close contact with your travel company recruiter while working the strike, so you’re not incurring any expenses that won’t be reimbursed. It should be noted that most strike travel contracts have some sort of guaranteed compensation.

Would You Work A Strike Assignment?

Though controversial, working a strike travel assignment has its benefits. Because of the high demand, you may make more in two days than you would in an entire week. The base pay will be slightly above the normal wage, but the overtime may be double or even triple the normal rate.

On the other hand, you may be faced with an environment that is short staffed and even hostile.

While strike work isn’t for everyone, it may be something to consider if you have a large expense coming up. Some nurses have managed to make enough for a down payment on a house, a wedding, or even a child’s college education with just one assignment.

Don’t Want To Work A Strike, But Still Want To Travel?

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