Travel nurses have held the upper hand for most of the pandemic, with providers willing to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for the temporary help needed to care for patients during the public health emergency.
But as COVID-19 cases declined, so too have those rates and the demand for temporary nurses. Nurses who once earned $10,000 a week are getting that much for a month’s work, said Kaycee Turner, a travel nurse recruiter with Loyal Source, a workforce solutions provider.
And many nurses, accustomed to higher wages, don’t want to take jobs that pay less. That’s where hospitals see an opportunity. To recruit nurses and to bolster their own staffing ranks amid long-term nursing shortages, some health systems are launching their own in-house staffing agencies. Nurses are paid a premium to rotate within their own systems, giving hospitals workforce flexibility, a talent pipeline and a lower cost structure than if they worked with an outside agency.
Some systems offer travel nurses higher wages than what’s available through an external agency, crimping those companies’ ability to attract talent.
“We have openings. They’re not willing to take them,” Turner said of travel nurses.
From February 2021 to February 2022, the median travel nurse rate rose 56% to $139 per hour, according to healthcare consultancy Kaufman Hall’s survey of 900 U.S. hospitals. In February 2020, the median rate was $59 per hour. Meanwhile, the median rate for a staff nurse rose only 11% to $40 per hour in February 2022 compared with February 2020.
Overall, median contract labor expenses went from representing 2% of hospitals’ labor expenses in February 2020 to 5% in February 2021 and 12% in February 2022, Kaufman Hall reported.
Labor costs can represent as much as 55% of a health system’s expenses, according to the firm.
“I think leading organizations are working to develop some very creative solutions,” said Therese Fitzpatrick, a senior vice president at Kaufman Hall who advises hospitals and health systems on staffing issues.
Some health systems are setting up pools of nurses who travel throughout the system’s network, while others are creating their own branded staffing companies, Fitzpatrick said.