I make tons of money on travel nursing, but it’s not worth it

  • Hunter Marshall is an intensive care nurse in New Mexico who has spent the pandemic traveling.
  • Marshall made $90,000 in 28 weeks as a travel nurse, but still wants to quit due to burnout.
  • This is the story of Marshall, told to writer Fiona Lowenstein.

This say-to-say essay is based on a conversation with Hunter Marshall, an intensive care nurse in New Mexico who has spent the pandemic traveling in nursing. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When the pandemic started, I was in a full-time position at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. I had just been accepted into the Family Nurse Practitioner program at UNM and planned to stay at my job, either part-time or in a position as needed.

We were the COVID-19 unit and there was frustration among the staff. We were told that we were not eligible for hazard pay and that they would not allow non-COVID postings for pregnant staff and staff over 60. I ended up doing an interview about working conditions in the Albuquerque Journal and got a letter from the administration basically saying, “If you talk to the media again, you’ll be disciplined.”

I wanted to stay. I liked the work. I liked the people I worked with. But if I have to be treated like shit, I’m not going to be paid like shit either – especially at a time when I’m incurring more school fees.

I ended up taking a travel assignment to Wrangell, Alaska over the summer

In 13 weeks, I earned what I would have earned in six months at my old job.

In New Mexico, I was making $32.34 an hour. In Alaska I was making $65 an hour and $100 an hour overtime. In addition, they provided me with free accommodation and paid for my flights. I still had to pay my $595 monthly rent in New Mexico, but I didn’t need a car because Wrangell is tiny. During my 13 weeks in Alaska, I earned a total of $32,928.

When I flew there I had to quarantine myself and I got paid for it. We also got paid when we had exposures at my staff job, but that came from our sick days and vacations. Once these were exhausted, we were no longer paid at all. It feels good to feel respected and rewarded.

In late 2020 and early 2021, I spent seven weeks in San Diego and earned $17,804.34, working 36 hours a week. During the same period a year later, I went to Anchorage, Alaska and made $35,834.37 over eight 36-hour weeks. My travel expenses to and from San Diego and Anchorage were covered, but I decided to rent a car in Anchorage for $2,986.66. I didn’t really need it, but it was an expense I could afford and allowed me to go sightseeing and visit friends.

During my winter travels, I received a sub-letter to New Mexico for about half the time I was away. I ended up paying about half of my $650 monthly rent. My housing and rental car total came to $9,229.26.

All combined I made $86,566.71 over 28 weeks of travel nursing

I have a lot less financial stress. Between the money and the ability to negotiate the terms of your job, it’s no surprise that so many people do. The equivalent of working at UNM for the same number of hours would have been $32,598.72 before taxes. I would have worked at school, as well as during school holidays. I should have taken out loans.

Unfortunately, with itinerant nursing, the collective knowledge shared by a unit has disappeared. Instead, there is a disjointed community. Nursing is a team sport, and working with people you don’t know is more difficult. Not having those relationships anymore means you’re very alone at the end of the day, in a way that leads to more burnout.

It is also more difficult to develop skill sets. When I was a staff nurse, I was able to operate the dialysis machine and take care of ECMO patients. I couldn’t do these things as a travel nurse because hospitals have no way of knowing if the nurse they hired will be competent.

The staff nurses are the only ones trained to do this stuff, so they end up doing more work than the travel nurses who earn more than them. This disparity adds to the resentment, but she is more oriented towards hospital administration than other nurses. Even before COVID-19, nurses did not feel valued.

Travel allowance is one of the things that keeps people in healthcare

I have this period between graduating and getting my nurse practitioner license, and I was told I could come back to UNM as a contract staff member, but I don’t think not that I will.

This latest contract showed me that the works took a toll. Before, we felt like we were getting by, but now we feel like we’re all falling apart. So I think during this time I’m just going to do something unrelated to health care, like work as a waiter – to remind myself what it’s like to be in an environment where people don’t die and cry all the time. The money is not worth it.

I don’t think I will work in a hospital again, but I would be happy to work at Planned Parenthood or a school clinic. Something lighter, where when I get home I don’t wonder about this couple’s three children who died of COVID-19.

I’m ready to take a pay cut now, because I’m exhausted.

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