Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, BA, CBC
Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, BA, CBC
September 8, 2020 - 3 min read

Why Crisis Contracts Are Risky for Travel Nurses

Crisis contracts can be very lucrative for travel nurses but they come with tradeoffs. Crisis contracts are often the first to be canceled and working conditions can be less than ideal with long hours and complex patient needs.

COVID-19 has changed travel nursing for the foreseeable future. More short term crisis contracts are becoming available due to the ongoing pandemic.

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What is a crisis contract?

Crisis travel nursing contracts are offered when a hospital or specific geographical location are determined to be in a time of crisis. The reason for the crisis may vary. Crisis contracts have most recently been offered during natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Irma and medical disasters such as the Ebola crisis in Texas and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A crisis nursing contract is often more lucrative than regular travel nursing contracts because they are extremely time-sensitive. Generally speaking, the location or hospital needs nurses immediately and can not afford to wait for them to finish other contracts. For this reason, they will offer a higher salary to garner attention and interest. This also means that only nurses with the ability to pick up and leave immediately will be able to accept contracts.

Ultimately, the salary will depend on the location, hospital’s budget, what agencies are able to negotiate with the hospital or healthcare system, and the level of nursing care needed. For example, ICU nurses will earn a higher wage than a medical-surgical nurse based on skill level. Crisis contracts are highly lucrative because nurses are often working in high-risk conditions which are sometimes less than ideal.

What does a crisis contract include?

Because crisis contracts differ from regular nursing contracts it is essential that nurses read the contract in its entirety including cancel clauses. Most contracts will not offer any type of reimbursement if the contract is canceled prior to the start date.

Crisis contracts will outline crisis pay which may include:

  • Shift Bonus pay
  • Overtime pay
  • Shift Differential
  • Baseline extra pay

Extra compensation may be given in a crisis contract due to the unpredictable nature of the crisis and risk involved of working during a pandemic or natural disaster.

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How long does a crisis contract last?

Crisis contracts are usually shorter than typical travel contracts and generally will last for anywhere between 2 to 6 weeks. However, after the crisis contract is complete the hospital may have additional travel nursing needs or the crisis contract may be renewed. Employing crisis nurses for short periods of time at higher wages is more cost-effective than hiring for longer periods of time. Most contracts will require hospitals to pay a certain fee to the nurse if the contract is canceled once it has begun.

What makes crisis contracts risky for travel nurses?

While a crisis contract might sound like an excellent idea during a pandemic or natural disaster, they are EXTREMELY risky. Because the hospital or location needs nurses quickly, they often overhire because they are aware that not everyone hired will complete the requirements prior to the start date. But, if there are too many nurses then the contracts can be cancelled. This often happens.

There are no financial costs for the hospital associated with canceling a crisis contract prior to a start date except for a few nominal costs/fees. For that reason, hospitals often will work with multiple agencies in order to secure the appropriate number of nurses. Furthermore, during a crisis, the patient census can change day to day. It’s possible that by the time additional staff arrive, the patient census will not require it.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of crisis travel nurse contracts were canceled the day before in major hotspots such as New York City, parts of California and Texas. Nurses were left absorbing the costs of flights, hotels, rental cars, and potentially short term housing. This money is not refunded by the agency or hospital system. Unfortunately, because the contracts were cancelled the day before – this left hundreds of nurses without jobs. In the meantime, other regular travel nursing positions were filled.

When determining if a crisis travel nurse contract is right for you, consider the cancellation risk. It is much higher than typical contracts and will often not happen until the day before as seen during COVID-19. Accepting a crisis contract may not leave many other contracts available if you are canceled. Sometimes more money isn’t worth the risk of job security.

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