US hospitals are losing more nurses than ever to lucrative contract work

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Image: Reuters/John Jamison
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America’s Covid-19 crisis has turned into an unexpected financial opportunity for an often neglected category of healthcare workers: nurses.

As the pandemic continues to ravage parts of the country with low vaccination and high transmission rates, healthcare providers don’t just have to deal with a lack of intensive care beds and ventilators, but with a severe lack of nurses. Smaller hospitals have dozens of vacancies for registered nurses, and larger ones have hundreds of them, reports the Associated Press.

Nurse shortages in the US were an issue prior to Covid-19. Between the higher demand of an aging population, often excessive workloads, and limited training opportunities, the nation was going to face a significant lack of nurses even prior to Covid-19. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that in the following 10 years, the nursing workforce demand would grow at a rate of up to15% annually, one of the fastest of any other occupations. The profession, however, isn’t keeping pace.

Without accounting for added Covid-19 demand and the burnout that has led many nurses to resign, the BLS had estimated a need for at least 1.2 million new nurses by 2030 (the current nursing workforce is around 3 million). Instead, America has thousands fewer than before Covid-19, which is giving the upper hand to those who stay in the profession.

During Covid-19, nurses can make $5000 or more a week

The pandemic has added a new element to the generally high turnover: Even nurses who aren’t leaving the workforce are quitting their full-time jobs, joining agencies that will send them as contractors where they are needed.

Being a so-called “traveling nurse” pays. While the average salary for a nurse pre-pandemic was $1,000 to $2,000 per week, they can easily make $5,000 or more per week as contract work, according to healthcare staffing agencies. Hospitals report paying up to $150 per hour to nurse staffing agencies, of which $70 to $90 goes to the contract nurse, they say. By comparison, the mean hourly salary for nurses according to the BLS  is $36.

There are tens of thousands of openings for traveling nurses around the country. Texas—which has one of the country’s lowest rates of nurses (9.75 per 1,000 residents, compared to a national average of 12 per 1,000)—had a shortage of 23,000 nurses as of August. An estimated 6,000 traveling nurses were recruited to help fill the gap, but at the same time, many quit their full-time positions, lured by the prospect of higher earnings as contractors.

Not all hospitals can afford to pay inflated rates to the staffing agencies. This puts smaller institutions, and especially government and rural hospitals which already tend to be understaffed, in the stressful position of having to decide between an even smaller workforce and financial trouble.