Sarah Falcone BSN, RN
Sarah Falcone BSN, RN
June 30, 2023 - 6 min read

Is Travel Nursing Dead? A Look at the State of Travel Nursing

Hospitals are phasing out travel nurses. Meanwhile, travelers are complaining that their contracts have been cut short. Signs point to major challenges in the industry — but is travel nursing dead?

Travel nursing has long been a stellar opportunity for nurses to explore the country while gaining valuable experience. However, the pandemic caused a dramatic surge in demand for nurses willing to travel. As a result, many first-time contractors were attracted to the field. Now, many people are questioning what is going on in travel nursing, as facilities return to pre-pandemic staffing levels. This post explores the current state of travel nursing and how nurses are affected.

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The Demand For Travel Nurses in 2023

Source: Unsplash

According to Timothy Landhuis, vice president of research at Staffing Industry Analysts, there were approximately 50,000 US travel nurses pre-pandemic — approximately 1.5% of the country’s registered nurses. That pool doubled to at least 100,000 as COVID spread.

However, complex factors have contributed to a decline in travel nursing positions over the past year.

Most clearly, the cost for hospitals to bring in travel nurses is prohibitively expensive. Contract labor expenditures soared by more than 500% in 2022, as hospitals sought out travel nurses to help with pandemic staffing shortages.

Rather than depending on travel nurses for temporary solutions today, hospitals are increasingly looking for permanent, full-time nurses. Large health systems are developing new programs that allow employed nurses to travel to different facilities within their network. The drop in demand has meant there are fewer opportunities for travel nurses and lower pay rates.

St. Charles Health System in Oregon is a prime example. A recent report showed they ended last year in the red. In response, the hospital is cutting back on travel nurses. One man complained to a local news station after his surgery was canceled. His doctor told him that he should seek care elsewhere due to the travel nurse layoffs.

Despite the decline there are still openings for all specialties, particularly in rural and underserved areas. These settings often lack permanent staff or rely on travel nurses to replace vacancies in their bare-bones workforce to meet the community’s needs. Likewise, some medical facilities continue to lean on travel nurses for short-term staffing needs.

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, the highest-paying jobs for travel nurses have been in intensive care units, emergency departments, medical surgery, and home health. Contract labor rates are expected to stabilize at 15% over pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

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Travel Nurse Salary Drops to $3k Per Week

The coronavirus and successive variant waves exacerbated hospital staff shortages, resulting in exorbitant contract nursing fees.

As the average travel nurse salary rose across the country in 2020, so did the number of nurses who quit their full-time employment to travel. More nurses abandoned staff employment, and the turnover worsened shortages.

During the omicron surge in the winter of 2022, national rates for travel nurses rose to $150 per hour. This was three times more than the national average for full-time staff nurses. One of the most profitable professions quickly became even more lucrative. Some accused travel nurse staffing companies of price-gouging. Legislators even discussed options to cap nurses’ pay.

Source: Healthcare Dive

Three years later, many travelers are returning home for stable staff positions. NBC News announced last fall that “the travel nurses’ gold rush” is over. Hospitals are now negotiating down contract rates with travel nurse agencies by as much as 50%. Though not what it once was, travel nursing is far from dead, and the pay is still above average. The mean travel nurse income has stabilized at around $3k per week in 2023. Given that compensation has fallen since the unprecedented pandemic pay, so have the number of travel nurses, making jobs less competitive.

Still, a number of factors, such as whether a hospital is dealing with a natural disaster or strike, as well as market demand in that region, can cause assignments to attract higher prices. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual travel nurse salary in the United States is $105,021 or $50/hr as of May 2023. This is much higher than the national average for registered nurses, which is $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour, according to the BLS.

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Unexpected Contract Changes

NBC News reported that demand for travel nurses fell 42% in 2022. It seems that many nurses have had their contracts cut short as a result.

Fierce Healthcare told the story of Tiffanie Jones, who was on the road from Florida to Wyoming when she found out her travel nurse contract was canceled without warning. The same article mentioned another nurse who relocated her entire family to find out her contract was canceled during orientation. Cancellations or pay adjustments mid-contract have become so common that nurses are taking legal action against more than 35 staffing companies.

“We’re hearing from nurses all over the country who just felt absolutely taken advantage of,” said attorney Austin Moore, who has filed four lawsuits on behalf of 11 traveling nurses. The litigation targets Aya, Maxim Healthcare, NuWest Group, and Cross Country Healthcare. Moore also told Newsweek that over 100 companies had engaged in similar practices.

The attorney said he has over 400 cases of travel nurses reporting pay cuts from 25% to 70%. He reported that many staffing agencies were “breaching their contracts,” while others were “committing outright fraud.” Moore said that most staffing companies who participate in these practices have arbitration clauses in their contracts to prevent nurses from suing them.

Travel Nursing Is Still A Viable Option For Nurses

Travel nursing is still a viable employment choice for the nursing profession. Travelers can earn better salaries with stipends and bonuses than their counterparts, with benefits packages and affordable living arrangements. Another perk of travel nursing is schedule flexibility. Nurses enjoy the option to work 13-week assignments with breaks in between.

Another common attitude expressed by travel nurses is that contract work allows them to focus on patient care. They can avoid the bureaucracy of dealing with management and leadership that some face in staff roles. Travelers also choose which hospitals they will work in. They can refuse facilities that they’ve heard have dangerous conditions or too many patients per nurse. California is the only state to regulate nurse-to-patient ratios. It requires one nurse for every five patients in most departments and intensive care units to have a 1:2 ratio.

Travel nursing is perfect for those who want the freedom to choose the assignment and department that fits their lifestyle and interests. It allows nurses to obtain experience in a variety of settings while having the freedom to travel. Despite the current economic downturn, travel nursing remains a feasible employment option for healthcare workers with the right mindset and skills.

Internal Traveler Programs

An attractive option for nurses who enjoy traveling is internal travel nurse programs. These are contract positions offered by health systems that allow nurses to travel on a short-term basis to associated hospitals. The pay is often higher, but in some cases, benefits may be limited.

“These positions are enticing for anyone interested in a higher base pay, while foregoing many traditional health and wellness benefits — perhaps nurses who are still eligible for health insurance under their parents or guardians, or those who already have coverage through a spouse’s employer,” said Denise Neely, BSN, Senior Vice President and COO for Bronson Methodist Hospital and Chief Nursing Officer for Bronson Healthcare.

Source: Facebook Travel Nurse Community

Other facilities offering similar internal travel programs include:

These arrangements also relieve some of the pain points that travel nurses have, such as having to learn new policies and procedures, having to repeat new hire and HR orientation, and worrying that the hospital may cancel the contract.

What Does the Future Have In Store for Travel Nursing?

Industry analysis suggests that the US may face a shortage of up to 450,000 registered nurses by 2025. According to one nationwide assessment of the nursing workforce, nurses are retiring in greater numbers, with the typical nurse’s age rising from roughly 43 in 2000 to 52 in 2020. This reality, combined with the impending influx of elderly Baby Boomers who will require more care, is expected to exacerbate the situation. These facts suggest that there will always be choices for experienced nurses in all specialties who want to travel.

Technological advancements and virtual care will continue to have an impact on the ever-changing world of travel nursing. And while some features of travel nursing may evolve, traditional short-term assignments will remain a popular option to meet facility needs. Overall, travel nursing is very much alive and an attractive career choice for nurses with a promising outlook for the future.

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