These days, hospitals are losing staff. Some say it's due to post-COVID attrition; others, as NPR recently reported, say that talented nurses are simply opting for travel nursing roles that pay better.
Since 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services has projected a nursing shortage that would last until 2030. For both registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, however, that shortage has turned into a financial windfall, thanks to the medical profession's equivalent of the gig economy: travel nursing.
Travel nurses take on short-term roles at clinics and hospitals, rather than long-term roles in just one place. Gigs can include hospital-hopping around the country to address nursing shortages, as well as jobs on cruises or escorting private patients that require a medical attendant. While traveling nurses can easily double their normal income, there are some financial drawbacks to consider.
"Travel nurses, on average, make 30% more income than staff nurses, according to TravelNursing.org," Bryan Cannon, CEO and chief financial strategist at Cannon Advisors, tells Health. "In addition, there are a slew of other benefits available depending on your location, such as bonuses, paid travel expenses (hotel, mileage, and plane expense reimbursements), as well as monthly housing and meal stipends, which can add up fast."
However, travel nurses are typically paid as contractors, which leaves them with 1099s instead of W2s at tax time. Their accounting arrangements should look like those for freelancers. Cannon says they may find themselves paying quarterly estimated taxes, setting up payroll, and establishing a corporation to manage overhead and income.
The down side of this high cash income? Traveling nurses often forgo employee benefits such as health care, retirement plans, life insurance, and disability protections. They also lose the long-term job security that many medical professionals enjoy. Yet gigging can be a great play for those who can access benefits through a spouse, veteran's benefits, or prior employment.
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Seasoned nurses also say there are intangible benefits to being a short-term worker: "A travel nursing contract will pay double to triple the amount of money that an RN would make as a staff nurse," Jenna Liphart Rhoads, PhD, of Nursetogether.com, an information resource for nurses, tells Health. "In addition to the much higher pay, nurses working on travel contracts often do not feel as compelled to get involved in workplace drama," Rhoads says. In fact, sometimes their expertise adds a much-needed outside perspective—and their presence can even help stave off burnout for existing staff.
Rhoads has also noticed that some travel nurses are happier to be at work because they are being compensated so well. "I have even known of nurses taking travel contracts within their own city and therefore don't have to be away from their families," she adds.
However, Alice Benjamin, chief nursing officer and correspondent for Nurse.org, a nursing job and information site, tells Health that the increased resignation of nurses during the pandemic has been a major disruption in hospitals and patient care. Nurses were overworked, and many felt undervalued. Those who choose the travel route have the flexibility to take control of when and where they work. They can also establish the kind of financial freedom that ensures true work-life balance and a sustainable career in the field that they love.
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"Travel nursing jobs are good for short-term gain or for tax write-off purposes, but the truth is an experienced nurse with several years of experience or one who advances their education will be financially better off in a staff position," Benjamin explains. "Those who benefit from travel nursing are those with two to five years' experience."
Because travel nurses are expected to hit the ground running and exit quietly without any long-term commitments, nurses with fewer years under their belt can make a name for themselves and use these short stints as networking opportunities to leverage in the future.
For now, travel nurses should focus on states such as Texas, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, Florida, and Tennessee, which have some of the nation's largest projected nursing shortfalls.
When hospital budgets level out and the pandemic is firmly under control, travel nurses could find themselves at the top of recruitment lists for well-paying permanent roles—wherever they ultimately decide to put down roots.
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