Travel nurses raced to help during Covid. They are now facing sudden cuts.

Tiffanie Jones had several gas tanks on her drive from Tampa, Florida, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, when she learned her contract with a nurse had been canceled.

Jones, who has been a nurse for 17 years, grabbed a Facebook group for nurses and saw that she was not alone. Nurses reported that they lost their jobs abruptly and that their prices fell by as much as 50 percent in the middle of the contract.

“One lady packed her whole family and was canceled during orientation,” she said.

Many nurses like Jones turned to travel gigs during the pandemic, when hospitals full of Covid-19 patients were in urgent need of help. Some travelers – who earned twice, sometimes three times as much as registered nurses – gathered at TikTok and other social media platforms to celebrate payday, share tips on how to calculate net contract revenue and brag about how much they carried home weekly. Their happiness was so great that federal and state lawmakers considered limiting salaries, mobilizing nurses in protest.

The tide turned abruptly. As Covid’s hospitalization rates stabilize, at least for now, and federal and state funds to help Covid cease, contracts with nurses that have been abundant and lucrative are disappearing. And after an express pot has led to staff turnover and a rush of early retirement in the last two or more years, hospitals across the country are focused on hiring full-time nurses.

Nationally, demand for registered nurses fell by a third in the month before April 10, according to employment agency Aya Healthcare, although the number of jobs has increased slightly in recent weeks.

When the Oregon governor declared a state of emergency over the April 1 pandemic, state money to help Covid evaporated. The University of Oregon Health & Science Hospital in Portland has lost funding to nearly 100 nurses. That, along with lower Covid rates and more full-time employees, led to a “bubble burst,” said Dr. John Hunter, executive director of OHSU Health.

The health system had about 50 performers of all kinds before the pandemic, compared to 450 at its peak, when patients, many of whom needed close monitoring, flooded and turned the hospital recovery room into an intensive care unit.

“It was very expensive,” Hunter said. But things are turning around, he said, and in recent weeks the hospital has contracted contracts with its agency for nurses as much as 50 percent.

Nurses earn far less than their colleagues on the road. Prices for a new nurse at the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Louis. Johnsbury, for example, starts at $ 30 an hour – plus benefits and extras for night shifts. At the height of the pandemic, the hospital paid employment agencies about $ 175 per hour for each travel nurse. The rate is still over $ 100 per hour, but the hospital is trying to reduce that. Because the hospital pays the agency directly, it’s not clear how many nurses they have, CEO Shawn Tester said.

For some travel nurses, the sudden drop in salaries was a shock. Since December, nurse Jessica Campbell has extended her 13-week contract at an Illinois hospital without any problems. In early April, a week after Campbell’s last contract, her recruiter said her price would drop by $ 10 an hour and she could accept or leave.

“I ended up accepting it because I felt like I had no other options,” Campbell said.

The situation for some travel nurses has become so bad that a law firm in Kansas City, Missouri, has said it is considering a lawsuit against more than 35 employment agencies. Austin Moore, a lawyer at Stueve Siegel Hanson, said some agencies “breach their contracts” and in other cases “commit outright fraud” through bait-and-switch maneuvers on travel care contracts.

The company opened an investigation in March, citing comments from hundreds of nurses, Moore said. “Our phones are ringing nonsense,” he said. “No one has experienced it this way – historically, contracts have been honored.”

How much is a nurse worth?

Stephen Dwyer, senior vice president and chief legal and operations officer at the American Staffing Association, a trade group representing the travel nursing staff industry, said in an e-mail statement that “as market conditions change, hospitals and other healthcare facilities can change conditions. travel nurse contract. ”

“To reduce rates or cancel contracts that happen in the middle of a task, staffing companies often recommend announcing in advance,” he said.

Moore said that small prints can vary, but when the employment agency cancels the contract at the last minute or gives the nurse one or two days to consider a lower price, the agency often violates the contract. Under the contracts, the loss should fall on the agency, not the nurses, when the hospital requests a lower rate, Moore added.

Salary rates have always varied seasonally as the demand for nurses to patch staffing holes in hospitals changes, said XueXia Bruton, a nurse in the Houston-based intensive care unit. She has been traveling since 2018, attracted by flexibility and financial freedom and has no plans to return to staff sisterhood. By the way, Bruton cataloged her experiences on TikTok and Instagram, telling her more than 91,000 followers that, for example, “it might make sense to wait until the contract is signed until prices drop.”

“It was very difficult overall during Covid when the cases were very high,” Bruton said. “We were all burnt out and exhausted, so it was important to be able to take as much free time as needed.”

Bruton has seen crisis rates of up to $ 10,000 a week. Nurse prices now average around $ 3,100, according to Vivian Health’s online employment market. Still, it’s more than before the pandemic and well above what a typical nurse earns.

Last year was especially profitable for recruitment agencies. Cross Country Healthcare, one of the few public companies to hire nurses and other health professionals, made $ 132 million in 2021, compared to a loss of $ 13 million the previous year and even bigger losses in 2019. Then-CEO Kevin Clark called the company’s financial results for 2021 a “historic milestone for both revenue and profitability.”

High earnings in the nursing industry have caught the attention of lawmakers, including U.S. MP Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Who said he feared private investment firms buying employment agencies were charging exorbitant fees during the pandemic. to which Stat. In January, Welch and U.S. Representative Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) Wrote a letter to the White House seeking an investigation into possible “anti-competitive activities” by recruitment agencies after receiving reports that they were “inflating the price, two, three or more times. before the pandemic. ”

Some travel nurses return to constant gigs, attracted by great encouragement and stability. Jones, whose contract in Wyoming was canceled in early March, was considered a nurse position in Montana – partly boosted by an initial $ 10,000 bonus. But she ended up with a contract for a travel nurse in rural Kansas, where the salary is better than she would be employed, but not exactly what she was used to during the pandemic.

Jones said her trip raised a big question: How much is a nurse worth?

Along the way, Jones said, “for the first time in years, she could breathe financially,” sometimes earning nearly twice as much as she earned as a nurse.

“It’s a difficult profession,” she said. “We like to do it, but we have to pay the bills.”

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