Working as a nurse in the early days of the Covid pandemic was emotionally draining for Reece Brown – she was forced to leave her young daughter with her family as she went from concert to concert and saw too much in intensive care. The patient died.
“He’s very lonely,” said Brown, 30. “I’m a single mom, I just want to see my daughter, her arms and her face, not just FaceTime.”
But the money is not very good. By July 2020, he was making $5,000 or more a week, almost triple his pre-pandemic salary. It was a year when the money was so lucrative that thousands of hospital workers quit their jobs to become traveling nurses during the pandemic.
The gold rush ended two years later. Brown stayed at her home in Louisiana with her daughter and refused to work. The highest-paying travel show offers her $2,200 a week, a level he would have loved before the pandemic. But after two “traumatic” years of treating Covid patients, he said it wasn’t worth it.
“I thought it was gross because two years later we really got compliments and our prices have gone down,” he said. “People are still sick and people are still dying.”
However, the pay cut does not mean that tourist nurses will return to full-time work. The short-term rise of mobile nurses is a temporary solution to the long-term decline of the profession before the pandemic. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, the US could face a shortage of up to 450,000 registered nurses within three years unless healthcare workers and the government take aggressive steps to hire new workers. Nurses left and hospitals struggled to hire enough staff to cover shifts.
Nine nurses across the country, including Brown, told NBC News that they are considering career options, graduating from college or leaving the profession altogether.
“We’re tired, exhausted nurses working for $2,200 a week,” Brown said. People are leaving the camp, he said, “because if we get kicked out, there’s no point in being in a nursing home.”
The story goes on
Travel assistance began as a profession in New Orleans in the late 1970s, where hospitals had to temporarily hire staff to care for sick tourists during Mardi Gras, industry experts say. During the 1980s and 1990s, field nurses often replaced salaried nurses with maternity leave, meaning 13-week contracts became common.
In 2000, more than 100 travel agencies were offering travel deals, and by the end of the decade the number had quadrupled. This has become a lucrative business for the agency due to the high commissions hospitals pay to them. According to a spokeswoman for the American Health Association, it’s not uncommon for a contract that represents long-term care providers to pay 40 percent more than a nurse’s salary.
Just before the January 2020 pandemic, the U.S. had about 50,000 mobile nurses, or about 1.5 percent of the country’s registered nurses, according to Timothy Landhuis, vice president of research at Staffing Industry Analysts, a research firm. Sector. The pool has doubled to at least 100,000 as Covid spread and it has been said the actual number could be much higher than this estimate at the height of the pandemic.
In 2021, field nurses earned an average of $124.96 per hour, three times the hourly rate of full-time nurses, according to federal statistics, the research organization said.
In the same year, according to Nursing Solutions Inc.’s 2022 National Healthcare Retention and RN Staffing Report, travel allowances for registered nurses accounted for 2.47% of hospital staff who left the job.
But since then death and hospitalization rates for Covid have fallen, demand for field nurses has fallen dramatically, as have salaries, according to industry figures.
According to Aya Healthcare, one of the country’s largest staffing companies, demand fell 42% from January to July this year.
This does not mean traveling nurses will return to full-time positions.
Brown said she is now considering giving up nursing altogether and starting her own business. Michigan’s Natalie Smith, who was a registered nurse during the pandemic, said she plans to get a nursing degree, but it could be more than that.
Pamela Esmond of northern Illinois, who also worked as a nurse during the pandemic, said she would continue to work as a nurse but just needed the money to retire at age 65. He is now 59 years old.
“The reality is they don’t pay enough nurses, and if they paid enough nurses, we wouldn’t have this problem,” she said. “I would like to go back into the medical field, but because of my full-time job, I will never be able to retire.”
The coronavirus is exacerbating problems that are already causing health workers to quit their jobs, Landuis said. “The nursing shortage was visible even before the pandemic,” he said.
Nurses are leaving hospital beds at an “alarming rate” due to the growing number of patients and their own tiredness and exhaustion, according to this year’s Nursing Solutions employee report. According to the report, the average hospital has changed 100.5% of its workforce in the past five years, and the annual turnover rate is now 25.9%, higher than any previous survey.
According to Aya Healthcare, there are currently more than 203,000 nurse positions open across the country, more than double the number before the January 2020 pandemic.
The obvious short-term solution is to continue using outreach nurses. But even if wages fall, the cost of hiring is a penalty.
Lanell Weems, executive director of the Mississippi Hospital Association’s Center for Quality and Manpower, said hospitals may not be spending as much as they were at the height of the epidemic.
“Hospitals cannot afford these extra labor costs,” Weems said. “One nuance I want to make sure you understand is that the fees that the travel agents charge the hospital are not equal to the nurse’s salary.”
Eventually, patients will suffer from a shortage of caregivers, whether full-time or part-time.
“Each patient who increases the workload of nurses in a hospital is associated with a 7-12% increase in in-hospital mortality,” said Linda Aiken, founding director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Nurses across the country told NBC News they chose the profession because they care about patient safety and want to provide first aid at the bedside.
“People say it’s exhausting, but it’s not,” Esmond said of why nurses quit. “Seeing untreated patients every day is a moral trauma. You can’t take it anymore.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.