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Travel nurses can make four times what a staff nurse makes, leaving many frustrated

The Oregon Nurses Association wants the state to stop relying on travel nurses out of fear more staff nurses will quit to take these higher paying positions.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Amid a critical nurse shortage nationwide, many staff nurses at Portland area hospitals are frustrated that travel nurses working alongside them are making far more money for doing the same duties.

Travel nurses, who fill gaps in staffing in hospitals and clinics for weeks at a time, can make four times the hourly wage of a permanent staff nurse. Ads online show weekly stipends of $5-10k, depending on the type of nursing job.

“It is such a large problem on many levels,” said Matt Calzia with the Oregon Nurses Association, the union that represents nurses throughout the state. “We are becoming way too dependent upon travelers and it's not a functional system for how you staff a hospital."

Calzia said staff nurses are very frustrated that their traveling counterparts are making far more money for the same job.

“Our members are not feeling valued by their employers,” said Calzia.

A complicated problem 

The pandemic exacerbated an already critical nurse shortage, with nurse burnout reaching record levels.

A recent poll from OHSU showed 60% of nurses considering leaving the profession.

RELATED: Hospital nurses feel despair 19 months into the pandemic

Because of the nurse shortage, hospitals are left in a tough spot for staffing. That’s where travel nurses come into play.

Hospitals often hire directly through staffing agencies, and the state of Oregon also has several contracts with staffing companies, which bill the state based on an hourly rate.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, as of early November, the state had almost 1,000 contract healthcare workers in hospitals and clinics.

In late November, Oregon extended the expiring contract for Jogan Health, a medical staffing company, through January of 2022.

The rates in Jogan Health’s contract, for example, include travel, lodging and per diem. On the high end, an ICU nurse can cost the state of Oregon up to $237 an hour. A registered nurse can cost $204 an hour.

For comparison, according to the Oregon Nurses Association, the average salary for a registered nurse in Oregon is around $80,000 a year. That’s an hourly rate of just over $40 an hour.

“The travel nurse phenomenon is a band aid at the end of the day,” said Iman Abuzeid, the CEO of Incredible Health, a career marketplace for healthcare workers.

Incredible Health helps match and place staff nurses in hospitals around the country, and in the Northwest.

According to the company, 80% of hospitals have reported an increase in permanent nurse turnover during the pandemic.

Credit: AP
An ICU nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Nurses and medical staff say that one of the hardest parts of this whole experience for them, is caring for people suffering and dying of a syndrome that is preventable with a vaccine. (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Pool Photo via AP)

But nurse burnout isn’t the only factor contributing to the staffing crisis. Abuzeid cites early retirements, relocations, career advancement opportunities and fallout from vaccine mandates.

“What we are seeing is 20% of nurses around the country have chosen not to get the vaccine. What that has created, is even more turmoil in the market when it comes to making nurse hiring and nurse retention happen,” she added.

There's no information available on how many nurses in Oregon were fired over the state’s mandate, as there isn't a statewide agency that kept track. Not even the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems or the Oregon Nurses Association.

Abuzeid said the cost associated with travel workers isn’t sustainable. She said most hospitals can only afford about 5% of their workforce to be temporary. Many are topping 20% right now.

RELATED: Hospitals were already facing nursing staff shortages. The pandemic made it far worse

“It's a cost issue. Hospitals run on low margins, and when you are spending three to four times on your temporary labor, that is going to eat into what are already low margins,” said Abuzeid.

The Oregon Nurses Association is now calling on hospitals and the state to stop relying so heavily on travel nurses, out of fear that more staff nurses will quit their jobs to take these higher paying positions.

“When we look at the impact to the healthcare system, it's just profound,” said Calzia.

The ONA wants hospitals to focus on creating better nurse retention programs and offer more mental health support for workers. It would also like to see more continuing education opportunities for nurses.

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