HEALTH CARE: Traveling nurses – On the road and in demand

Imagine the grueling work of a nurse. Now combine that with a different hospital, city, apartment and route to work every 13 weeks. Welcome to the life of a traveling nurse.

“It’s a lifestyle option,” said Gina Rander, clinical recruiter at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, who coordinates all contract negotiations with traveling nurses. “More and more specialties are using travelers, from nursing to radiology.”

The nationwide buzz of a nursing shortage can be found echoing through the halls of many Michigan hospitals. Something as simple as a nurse taking a well-deserved vacation can force hospital officials looking for outside help.

Munson uses about 40 traveling nurses a year, approximately five at any one time, Rander estimated.

“We are definitely feeling the shortage,” she said. “Nursing is practically a guaranteed job right out of school with an associate’s degree.”

Munson uses traveling nurses primarily for vacations, medical leaves and emergencies, noted Lori Kirkey, RN, BSN, and manager of Munson’s cardiac progressive care unit.

Another typical need for Munson traveling nurses is in O.R. while permanent staff is going through peri-operative internships and training–an internal technique for developing its own nursing staff, according to Rander.

Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey uses about 10 traveling nurses a year–two or three at any one time, said Margie Kessler, employment manager.

“Last year we had the misfortune of four O.R. nurses pregnant at once,” she said, with a smile. “I said, ‘holy gracious, we can’t cover this!’ So we called in traveling nurses.”

NMH also uses traveling nurses to cover the orientation and training time of two new graduates joining the staff each spring.

The decline in nursing numbers has left many hospitals regularly using companies like RN Network and Cross Country Staffing to supply nurses on a short-term basis. Typically, traveling nurses are assigned a 13-week stay in a hospital, with a work week of about 40 hours, according to Kirkey.

“With only a few days of orientation, traveling nurses have to come in with the attitude to pitch in and do the job immediately,” Kirkey said. “They need to walk in and get along with people. In over four years of doing this I’ve only had one traveling nurse who didn’t fit in.”

This outside flow of nurses also gives Munson a chance to shop and recruit highly experienced nurses. But the contracts often restrict hospitals from hiring travelers for the first year because of the nursing shortage.

“We’d love to have our own staff, but we just don’t,” Kirkey said.

An article in the Grand Rapids Business Journal last January pointed to many factors contributing to the nursing decline. In 1999, enrollment in graduate nursing schools fell 4.6 percent from 1998–the fifth consecutive year of falling numbers. In the article, Carol Feuss, director of communications for the Michigan Nurses Association, points to stress from long hours and tight finances, as well as an increase in career opportunities for women, for the decline. This at a time when the aging Baby Boomers are going to need them more than ever.

Traveling nurses aren’t new. Hospitals have used them for staff shortages as well as union strikes for years. For example, replacement nurses played a controversial role in a 73-day union strike in a Flint hospital just last winter. Kirkey estimated that as much as 50 percent of downstate hospitals are made up of traveling nurses.

“But typically, the staff appreciates the help,” Kessler said. “With the nursing shortage, there’s enough hours for everybody. It’s not an issue.”

Kirkey had her stint as a traveling nurse 15 years ago. Despite the hassles that can come with union-related placements, many nurses enjoy the feeling of being welcomed into a staff, because permanent staff knows it’s the only way they might get vacation time.

“You get to pick from 10-15 assignments and meet all these great people when you travel,” Kirkey said. “The neatest place I worked was Martha’s Vineyard. It was an eight-week assignment in a small community hospital. I had everything from O.B. to heart attacks in critical care.”

Traveling nurses have their housing and travel paid for by the company that employs them and coordinates their assignments. “But you never know what you are going to get to live in,” Kirkey said laughing. “It could be a three-bedroom condo to office space next to the hospital.”

Sandra Wente, RN, is a traveling nurse with RN Network and is currently on a 13-week assignment at Munson. Picking her assignments are often related to the climate of where she will be staying–a subtle perk to traveling.

“I was supposed to go back to Phoenix in August,” she said. “But I don’t want to go there in August! So I’ve extended my stay here.”

Likewise, last winter she opted to stay in Phoenix until April when the weather broke in Traverse City.

Another perk to traveling is the increase in pay. “I make a little more per hour than staff and there’s usually a bonus at the end of the 13 weeks,” said Wente, who is just traveling with her dog at this point.

Gander estimated that the traveling nurse companies are paid $45 to $60 an hour for a traveling nurse, but the nurses themselves see about $20 to $30 an hour.

“They take out traveling expenses, insurance, housing and furnishing a home for the nurses,” Gander said. “It depends on their shift and experience, but they usually make $5 more an hour than permanent staff–sometimes more, sometimes less.”

The increase in pay is a trade-off for nurses like Wente who are away from home and family for months at a time.

“It’s pretty stressful moving. The hospital, apartment and area are all unknowns,” Wente said. “But that’s also the part that makes it exciting.” BN