Travel nursing is in a state of transition in 2022. Throughout the pandemic, COVID-related hospitalizations combined with staffing shortages and provider burnout led many hospitals to increase travel nurse usage to meet demand. But as hospitalizations surged, so did the cost of travel nursing contracts — and many nurses experienced an unprecedented period of demand and high compensation for their services. However, as COVID-19 trends toward endemic status and hospitalizations subside, that trend is changing.
Travel nursing: Then and now
Eleonore Ruffy, Vice President of RNnetwork, says that prior to the pandemic, travel nursing was a regular, steady business. “Hospitals staffed approximately two percent of their nursing positions with travel nurses,” Ruffy says. “Here at RNnetwork, we had roughly 8,000 open positions nationwide at any given time.”
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged — especially surrounding the Omicron variant in December 2021 and January 2022 — demand for travel nurses soared. COVID highlighted the value of nurses, but was also a tipping point, according to one industry expert.
“COVID patients were treated largely by nurses. So, as the hospitals filled and nurses treated those specific patients, demand spiked. Compounding the issue, nurses began to get very burned out from the experience, and many left their permanent positions or left the profession altogether,” Ruffy says. “At its highest, contingency nurses accounted for an estimated nine percent of total contingency staffing. Here at RNnetwork, we peaked at 55,000 open positions nationwide. As you can imagine, when supply didn’t increase, bill rates and pay rates went up dramatically at that time.”
Industry data suggest the average pay for travel nurses increased from $1,706 per week in December 2019 to around $3,290 per week in December 2021. The travel nursing industry doubled in size over the last year. And in 2021, travel nursing revenue tripled to an estimated $11.8 billion, up from $3.9 billion in 2015.
As COVID-related hospitalizations decrease and relief funding tapers off, some experts predict the travel nursing “bubble” may burst. Ruffy acknowledges the reduction in demand, but says demand and pay are still much higher than pre-pandemic levels.
“It has dropped back down, but it’s still much higher than it was before COVID,” says Ruffy. “We have more than 20,000 open positions. And while hospitals are making incremental adjustments to pay, rates are still much higher than pre-pandemic rates.”
Traveler and permanent staff rapport
In addition to demand and compensation, the pandemic impacted other areas of travel nursing, including increasing the tension that sometimes exists between permanent staff and travelers.
“There are definitely challenges to travel nursing,” says Ruffy. “And some got better and some felt more intensified during the pandemic.”
“Long-term relationships can be harder to forge as you’re seen as the new provider and have to learn new systems and new processes with new team members. Sometimes a stigma exists if someone is not a permanent nurse, and that stigma was exacerbated during the pandemic. As travel nursing compensation increased, that gap widened.”
“However, in areas like Florida and Arizona where the census changed a lot during the year, facilities have been very traveler friendly,” says Ruffy. “Facilities in these areas have historically been much more accustomed to having travel nurses. They are more welcoming, as a result, and tend to give a better experience overall because they have been more used to having temporary staff.”
Ruffy hopes that the pandemic-driven demand for travel nurses will help make it more standard practice for more areas and therefore contribute to friendlier work environments.
“As more and more facilities have gotten more comfortable using travel nurses, the experience has been enhanced,” says Ruffy.
Travel nursing outlook
As for the outlook for the travel nursing market, Ruffy is optimistic.
“I think the outlook is still very bright for travel nurses. Even though COVID seems to have settled, demand and travel nurse pay are still higher than pre-pandemic levels, and there is a really good opportunity for nurses who are interested in the travel profession to get in,” says Ruffy. “Travel nurses today may not expect to earn peak crisis pay, but they’re also not going to experience the challenges of peak-pandemic demand, either.”