Staff nurses leaving for travel nursing jobs

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — There was a major shortage of healthcare workers before the pandemic, now the situation is even worse. Health systems and hospitals are desperately trying to hang on to the nurses they have but many are leaving to become traveling nurses for more money and flexibility.

Johanna O’Connell-Williams is a mother of four from Webster, she’s also a critical care nurse who spent the last two years on the front lines of the pandemic.

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“It was very, very, heavy…. very heavy you don’t forget those moments of helping families say goodbye over an iPad, “ she recalled, “you know it’s just something that makes you grateful to be a nurse because you could show up for the family when they weren’t able to. You could hold a hand, you could sit with a patient and those are beautiful gifts that hopefully some families are able to take to heart during times that they couldn’t be present.”

The days were long but, “it makes you appreciate the value of human connection and why it is so important to stay grounded and to stay present when you show up to work because you still get to leave at the end of the day no matter how bad it is no matter how much you hate wearing masks or gowns,” O’Connell-Williams said.

After 10 years as a critical care nurse at a Rochester hospital, O’Connell-Williams became a traveling nurse in 2019 just before the pandemic.

“Traditional contracts are 13 weeks but in the state of the global pandemic and variety of needs popping up as things progress you could have a contract for two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks… a lot more flexibility now,” she explained.

That’s because hospitals are desperate for help.

O’Connell-Williams has traveled to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse since the start of the pandemic, deciding each time her contract expires to renew it.

“I am away for three days, I am home for four and the blessing in that for myself and my family is that when I’m home, I’m home, I’m fully present” she says and when it comes to the pay, “the income that a nurse can make today as an agency nurse is… double, triple sometimes more than what they’re paying staff nurses.”

There is likely to come a time when that is not the case, or that particular hospital doesn’t need travelers anymore, at that point O’Connell-Williams will have to decide if she wants to choose another contract for another hospital.

Health systems across New York State have had to rely on traveling or agency nurses to get through the pandemic and it isn’t cheap.

“Agency costs have really been a huge premium over the last year and a half,” explains Dr. Robert Mayo, the Chief Medical Officer at Rochester Regional Health.

In some cases, staff nurses are leaving and then coming back as travel nurses for double, or triple the pay.

“It’s economics right, so it is something we’ve all got to talk about, we all have to pay attention to,” says Michael Stapleton, the CEO of Thompson Health. “The folks that have left to travel, we want them back… we want them to come back so they can focus on their professional development, they can be appropriately mentored because the last thing we can have is more people leaving health care because they’re not receiving the proper mentoring or ongoing education.”

In addition to increasing regular pay and overtime rates, health systems have had to offer bonuses to keep or recruit new nurses. They are also trying to compete when it comes to flexibility.

“We’re creating some of our own internal traveling options for some per-diem staff like that so they don’t go somewhere else, they stay with us and continue to take care of their community,” Stapleton said.

In the end, when there is a limited number of nurses available to help others get well, they get to call the shots on what helps keep them well.

“My parents worked their whole lives for one organization and were able to retire with pensions and benefits and health care those things don’t exist anymore so nurses and other people who work for agencies like staffing agencies for them they’re looking at how do I best prepare for my future,” she said.