Has COVID-19 Changed Travel Nurse Salary and Job Outlook Expectations?
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a surge in demand for travel nurses, and with that, came record salaries. But as the crisis abates, demand is falling again.
What does this mean for travel nurse salaries and job outlooks? How do 2022 travel nurse salaries compare to 2019? And what can travel nurses do to improve their salaries and job outlooks? Read on to find out.
Working as a travel nurse has always netted nurses higher rates, at the expense of reduced stability.
Travel nurses work in various hospitals and healthcare centers, providing additional support when the medical center finds itself understaffed. They might travel across the country for stays of several months, or they might spend just a couple of weeks in a local hospital covering a fellow nurse who’s off sick.
As a result, travel nurses often experience a famine and feast work situation: they’ll have periods with plenty of work and high pay, and other periods where they might struggle to find contracts.
COVID-19 was a tragedy for the country, and undeniably hard on healthcare staff. However, it also caused a bittersweet feast for travel nurses, who found themselves in constant demand.
On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. The impact on the healthcare industry was immediate and dramatic: in April 2020 alone, travel nurse wages rose by 25%. And by the peak of the pandemic, some travel nurses were earning as much as $10,000 a week. That’s roughly five times pre-pandemic weekly rates.
Staff nurses, seeing the disproportionate rates paid by travel nurses, decided to jump ship. Travel nurse agencies grew by enormous amounts during the pandemic, taking on more nurses and raising rates. In turn, this caused concerns over potential price gouging, an unfair or unlawful raising of prices.
While travel nurses were suddenly earning far more, it wasn’t all good news for them. Like most healthcare staff during the pandemic, they were exhausted, overworked, stressed and anxious.
Yet one thing is certain: they never had to worry about not finding more work. At the peak of delta hospitalizations, there were 50,000 open travel nursing positions, up from 4,600 in February 2019.
In spring 2022, the travel nurse bubble began to burst. By April 2022, there were just 13,000 open travel nursing positions. Meanwhile, travel nurses were receiving phone calls to inform them that their pay was being slashed or their contract canceled.
As the US exits the pandemic emergency, travel nurse pay rates are sliding. Some hospitals have negotiated travel nurse rates down by as much as 50%, and the nurses feel less confident pushing back. With fewer open positions, some feel it’s better to accept a pay cut than walk away from a job.
Other nurses are returning to permanent staff positions, swayed by the promise of stability (as well as starting bonuses). They know that as a staff nurse, they won’t have to worry about their rates being negotiated down mid-contract.
Yet some travel nurses are holding on, recognizing that they are still paid more overall than staff nurses.
Despite the renegotiated contracts and falling rates, not all is bad news for travel nurses. Wages are still higher than in 2019, and there are also more open travel nurse positions.
In fact, travel nurse salaries are currently averaging around $3,000 a week. For some cities, that’s double the 2019 rates. What’s more, travel nurses are no longer experiencing such high workloads. Burnout levels are dropping.
While travel nurses may be feeling the pinch compared to last year, there’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to significantly higher travel nurse salaries and better job outlooks.
Travel nurses can still negotiate attractive salaries. If you’re offered a low salary, you should remember these points:
If you’re informed mid-contract of a pay cut, this is probably against the terms of the contract you signed. You should review your contracts with both the healthcare center and the agency you signed on with. At the very least, the agency should support you in negotiating with the medical center. Together, you may be able to find a middle path.
Don’t be afraid to walk away from an offer that you believe is too low. There is still a higher than typical number of travel nurse position openings, which means that you could be able to negotiate a better offer elsewhere.
It’s important to remember that travel nurse rates were never going to maintain their mid-pandemic highs. As inflation rises, you should be looking for better wages compared to 2019. However, before rejecting a rate as too low, it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s actually low — or if it just seems low compared to the peak pandemic salaries.
On the other hand, if a rate really is unreasonably low or you feel that you can receive a better salary elsewhere, don’t be afraid to negotiate it or even turn down the job offer. Average travel nurse salary rates are currently high, so you should feel empowered to hold out for a reasonable rate. Check out our salary negotiation tips to help you do this.
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