Kelsey Whitson has been working as a registered nurse for five-and-a-half years. She spent four years as a staff nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at the Medical University of South Carolina. In March 2021, she changed direction and became a travel nurse.
Whitson remembered hearing about travel nursing during nursing school and knew it was an option.
“I’ve always loved traveling,” she said, adding that first she wanted to hone her skills, which she accomplished during her time at MUSC.
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked her decision to explore travel nursing.
“After the pandemic, it was a very lucrative option for nurses,” Whitson recalled.
Still, she stayed on part-time at MUSC for about a year.
Demand for travel nurses, registered nurses who work short-term contract assignments at hospitals and clinics, “exploded during the pandemic,” according to Health Affairs, a journal that explores health policy issues.
Data from the American Hospital Association shows that unique job postings for travel nurses saw a roughly 120% increase from pre-pandemic levels in January 2019 to January 2022. With vaccines and boosters limiting hospitalizations from the latest COVID variants, the pandemic-fueled side of the demand may have subsided a bit, but the allure of travel nursing remains.
Many nurses in full-time staff positions in hospitals have been enticed to transition into travel nursing, drawn by higher pay and a flexible schedule that allows for more vacation time and self-care to cope with stress and anxiety.
The standard contract for a travel nursing assignment is 13 weeks. Whitson works 36 hours a week, in three 12-hour shifts. Because she is not hindered by a specific number of contracts that she has to have, she can work three or four months and then take a month off.
“I like to go on vacation,” she said. “It has allowed me to see a ton of cool places.”
Often those cool places benefit her professionally because she cultivates skills in different hospitals in new settings, she added. And the pay isn’t bad either.
“The money has been life-changing,” she asserted.
Travel nursing salaries in Hawaii “can range between $1,965 to $3,379 per week, or close to $43,927 for a typical 13-week assignment, with additional perks such as private furnished housing or a housing stipend, 401(k) retirement plans and full health benefits,” according to nomadhealth.com.
Placement agencies set the travel nurses’ pay rate and take a percentage of the full bill rate – a percentage that can be as much as 20% to 30%, according to travelnursing.com. Hospitals pay the travel nursing agency rather than the nurses themselves.
Whitson contracts through a travel nurse placement agency – Travel Nurse Across America.
The recruitment process is pretty simple, she confirmed: You establish a relationship with the recruiter, tell the recruiter what you’re looking for and then offer a list of potential assignments. The recruiter then puts in your applications for a job. Some hospitals conduct an online interview, while others automatically hire you, she said.
At the time of this writing, Whitson was working a 13-week stint in Orlando.
Opening a Window of Opportunity
Khalialiah Yates has been working as a travel nurse for about a year-and-a-half. Like Whitson, she previously worked as a nurse in MUSC’s pediatric ICU. When she spoke with HealthLinks, Yates had embarked on a 13-week assignment in Boston. She does her assignment placements through a recruitment agency called Aya Healthcare. Similar to Whitson, she described travel nurse recruitment as fairly swift and painless.
“Normally we get a recommended list of jobs like a matching system,” said Yates, pointing out that, generally, travel nurses are connected to a new gig within two weeks. “It’s usually a pretty quick process.”
Born and raised in South Carolina with limited exposure to much of the country, Yates discovered that travel nursing has opened up a window of opportunity to travel and see more places.
“I would have never been able to travel to Boston,” she remarked.
Having time between assignments has been another important piece for her as well. Yates said she is taking off the entire month of December. Additionally, the patient workload in her travel nursing assignments has been more manageable. She cited, for instance, that her Boston contract stipulates that she can’t have more than two patients at a time; before, she would have twice that many.
Yates plans to return closer to home for the holidays, to Atlanta, where she previously worked on assignment, since she has family and an apartment in Charleston.
Some Charlestonians have discovered the benefits of the rise in travel nursing by shifting their rental promotions. Travel nurses receive a housing stipend and are eager to find rentals near hospitals where they work.
Helen Harris rented out a room and bath in her house in downtown Charleston to a travel nurse on assignment at one of the Roper St. Francis Healthcare locations from February through April of this year. It was her first experience “casting” for applications through a group on Facebook.
“I wanted someone professional who also had their own schedule, as I work from home,” explained Harris.
As more nurses seek ways to cope with burnout, there will likely be others who follow the path taken by Whitson and Yates and make the shift into travel nursing.
“I love it,” said Yates. “I regret not doing it sooner.”
By Colin McCandless