Is the Travel Nurse Pay Boom Really Over?

Is the Travel Nurse Pay Boom Really Over?

August 5, 2022 0 By Jennifer Walker

As the travel nursing boom — fueled by demand during the pandemic and a nationwide nurse shortage — begins to show signs of fading, some experts believe the overall outlook for travel nurse wages will remain strong, even amid uncertainty in the healthcare labor market.

Last week, executives at HCA Healthcare said during an analyst call that they expected a decrease in “contract labor” in the near future, and that company expenses for temporary staffing were down 22% from April to June, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Travel nurses reportedly earned as much as $10,000 a week during the height of the pandemic, according to the WSJ article, which described a distorted market for nurse wages as the result of the collision of pandemic-related demand for staffing with existing staff shortages.

While staff shortages have persisted and wages have remained higher for nurses in both contract and permanent positions, some industry leaders are expecting a downturn in the wages and contracts for traveling nurses, the article stated.

But not all experts believe in the negative outlook. Patricia Pittman PhD, of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, told MedPage Today via email that even during the height of the pandemic, the total number of travel nurses was not at an all-time high.

“It’s possible that hospital executives’ outcry about travel industry pricing was overblown,” Pittman told MedPage Today. “They are not always the best sources about what is actually happening on the ground, because they have a vested interest in constructing certain stories.”

She does see some trends toward a more moderate market for travel nurses though. For one, she noted, some hospitals are taking action to avoid hiring more contract nurses. For example, some hospitals are try to retain permanent staff by offering more pay increases and bonuses, or they are developing internal “float nurse pools” to act as in-house travel nurses.

Pittman also thinks any suggestion that the boom is over might merely be a reflection of cyclical staffing needs. Hospital groups might have less of a need for travel nurses at the moment, which allows them to temporarily reduce spending on those contracts. Pittman cautioned that such changes are usually based on the typical cycle of travel nursing.

In fact, a closer look inside the travel nursing world reveals a relatively stable situation. One registered nurse who has completed several inpatient travel contracts at hospitals in the Midwest and who asked to remain anonymous said she has seen no evidence that these contracts are being reduced.

She told MedPage Today that she’s not sure how anyone can accurately predict what will happen with travel nursing. For example, her hospital announced at one point that they would be ending travel nursing contracts within 6 months, but that was 2 years ago and the number of contract nurses hasn’t changed much.

“I don’t believe these hospital systems that say that they can’t afford these travelers, but then they keep employing them and make no meaningful plans to hire more permanent staff or don’t do anything to incentivize permanent staff to stay,” she told MedPage Today. “So it doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems like somebody’s run the numbers, and they actually can afford more travelers.”

This experience was reflected in a recent survey of registered nurses reported by MedPage Today that showed there is still an increased need for nurses amid low staffing. That survey, which involved more than 9,000 nurses, found only 24% of respondents believed their units had enough nurses with the proper skill level most of the time. That result declined from 39% in a 2018 version of the survey.

In line with Pittman’s expectation that current trends are cyclical, the short-term outlook for travel nursing pay appears set to decline as much as 15%, Brian Tanquilut, an analyst at Jefferies, told the WSJ. He noted that current weekly pay for travel nurses is just over $3,000. It’s a sharp decline from the highest pay over the pandemic, but Tanquilut told WSJ that it likely would not drop to pre-pandemic rates.

Several stakeholders, including nursing organizations and staffing agencies, declined to comment for this article.

Pittman also noted that larger economic concerns loom over travel nursing and the country as a whole.

“If there is a recession coming — and even if nurses and their families just think there is a recession coming — we are likely to see some nurses returning to work,” Pittman said. “This is the traditional counter cyclical nature of the nurse workforce.”

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    Michael DePeau-Wilson is a reporter on MedPage Today’s enterprise & investigative team. He covers psychiatry, long covid, and infectious diseases, among other relevant U.S. clinical news. Follow