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Nursing is a second career and a calling for Sara Dean of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Dean loved his job at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital. But then the pandemic hit and she saw how much nurses were being paid to travel – up to $10,000 a week.
“It’s a life-changing number. It’s a number that helps you pay off debt, get out of your grandma’s basement or whatever,” says Dean, 38. “I’m not saying we were in trouble. We were a two-income household. But we made ends meet.”
So she took time off from her job at the hospital and signed her first three-month contract to go to New Mexico. Her immediate family came with her; her boyfriend could work remotely and her daughter was in a virtual school. And when they weren’t working, they liked to explore the desert on dirt bikes.
Blake Farmer/WPLN News
Dean finally quit his job at home as the money got better and better after COVID hotspots from New Mexico to Maryland to rural Alabama. At one point, Dean’s overtime rate was over $200 an hour, and she was working 60 hours a week, saving the lives of COVID patients.
But after almost two years, it was really cheerleading that brought them home.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Dean shouted down the stairs to his 12-year-old son, Harper, while mixing up a protein shake. They were about to go out for off-season tumbling practices. Harper was working hard to perfect her backhand rollover before next season.
“I didn’t really have a lot of friends,” Harper said of her longing to come home. “I miss it so much that I can be around different people all the time.”
Money was previously unimaginable. But there came a time when being uprooted was no longer worth the sacrifice. Dean says Harper is the ultimate boss.
“She’s the one saying, ‘No more traveling…I want to go home,'” Dean says. “But it also puts me in a bind.”
The pandemic has proven how valuable highly trained nurses are.
Hospitals are still paying traveling nurses many times their normal salary to fill staffing gaps. And turnover continues to rise, with the highest rates in the Southeast with about one in four RNs leaving each year.
But many hospitals are not hiring local travelers, even though they are short of nurses. They want these RNs to accept full-time positions. And the full-time salary, while slightly higher, doesn’t come close to the more than $120 an hour travelers earn.
“It makes me feel like I’m in it for the money, but basically I’m in it for what’s best for my family,” Dean said.
Blake Farmer/WPLN News
She applied to Nashville-area hospitals that still employ hundreds of travelers and are waiting for a more palatable offer.
Hospitals have explored ways not to rely so heavily on staffing agencies, which the American Hospital Association has officially accused of raising prices during the pandemic. The AHA asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, although an FTC spokesperson said there was no investigation.
Vivian Health is an online marketplace for travel nursing jobs and tracks pay rates across the country. The San Francisco-based tech company is also helping hospitals trying to move away from their reliance on temporary staff. And that will require paying full-time employees more, CEO Parth Bhakta said.
“You’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “I think ultimately healthcare systems need to find a way to retain their workers more, and ultimately, probably, need to pay and incentivize their existing staff more.”
Full-time incentives are getting stronger. Some hospitals are experimenting with temporary positions that essentially allow a nurse to work as a traveler without having to leave town. Bonuses have also become the norm for new hires in some parts of the country.
“We’re actually seeing a very, very good labor market for nurses with hiring premiums ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 for nurses almost everywhere you look in this area of Nashville,” says Julie Hamm, president of the Tennessee Nurses Association.
Yet the average salary increase last year for full-time nurses was only slightly higher than the national average, at around 4%. And when a nurse has gotten used to earning between $8,000 and $10,000 a week, a one-time bonus of $20,000 doesn’t seem so generous, Sara Dean says.
That’s why she and other pandemic travelers face such a difficult transition.
With money in the bank after months on the road, Dean may be a bit more discerning about his next job. And she makes the most of her free time, whether it’s spending Christmas with her daughter in New York or cheering on her tween at a cheer practice.
During that time, she’s tried something completely different — working part-time at a wellness spa near her home that offers rejuvenating IVs. Beyond how to prevent their nurses from travelling, hospitals are dealing with burnout like they’ve never seen. It is estimated that half a million nurses are expected to leave the bedside entirely this year.
“It’s refreshing to do preventative health,” Dean said. “I just died and died for two years.”