Pay Rate: What’s Happening With Travel Nursing Pay Packages?

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By StaffDNA

April 30, 2023



What’s Happening With Travel Nursing Pay Packages?

StaffDNA provided this article.

In the last three and a half years, bill rate fluctuations have sometimes felt a bit like whiplash. Travel nursing changed fast when the Covid-19 Pandemic hit, and the ripple effect caused by the pandemic kept making waves well into two and three years later. 

Now, the healthcare industry is shifting again. Masks are coming off, visitor restrictions are being lifted, and in some ways, it feels like we are headed back to a true “normal.” But is the normal of the pre-pandemic travel nursing industry truly what we can expect to see in the coming months?

The short answer: no.

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The Start of It All

Back in 2016-2019, typical travel nurse pay packages averaged around $1,500-1,700 per week gross pay. If you were licensed in California, you may have been able to find pay above $2,000 gross due to union requirements and overtime laws. 

Once the pandemic hit in 2020, the whole hospital system was thrust into shock as hospitals tried to figure out how to take care of higher volumes of super sick patients seemingly instantly. 

At that point, there were significant drops in certain travel specialties while others saw an incredible spike in both rates and needs. Areas like allied health and pediatrics basically hit a standstill. Kids were staying home from school and not being exposed to illnesses as frequently, and thousands of surgeries were canceled, drastically reducing the need for therapists to help rehab post-surgical patients. 

Sky High Pandemic Rates

Between government aid and pure need for survival, hospitals were able to pay huge amounts to travel nurses. Gross rates for adult nurses skyrocketed to over $10,000 a week, and there were jobs in every location you could imagine. 

The key thing to remember about this time is these nurses also had to deal with significant safety concerns. Vaccinations were not an option, PPE was in critically low supply, and in some places, you were lucky to have an N95 available unless you brought your own. Front-line workers were getting sick no matter their age, and there were a lot of big, scary unknowns. So yes, the money was great, but a lot of people were not willing to put their health and well-being on the line to work in those conditions, no matter what they paid.

The Second Wave of Covid Travelers

Fast forward a couple of years, and while the five-figure rates had started to dwindle, travel nurses could still expect to make close to $4,000 per week gross fairly easily, and more if you got lucky and found a place that was willing to pay for a crisis contract.

Here, we saw a second wave of Covid travelers start to enter the workforce. A lot of these nurses were people who were feeling burnt out and frustrated after working in pandemic conditions for two years, often understaffed and short on supplies. Now, however, the risk of getting sick was much lower with vaccination available, and the country had finally gotten on top of the PPE shortage, so you knew you wouldn’t be expected to take care of the sickest of the sick without proper protection. 

In the last year, this has caused somewhat of a flooded market. We aren’t seeing the volume of sick patients that we had in 2020 or even a year ago, so hospitals simply aren’t willing to pay exorbitant rates to keep staffing numbers up. The “threat” of horribly short staffing simply doesn’t seem as threatening anymore. 

Leveling Out

As a result, basic economics has taken over. The supply of travel nurses is much higher than before the pandemic, but contracts have taken a dip. Not only are we not dealing with pandemic-level patient numbers, but we are going into summer and coming out of respiratory season.

Hospital systems have realized that they currently have the upper hand in the market and that the supply outweighs the demand for nurses in the travel sector. This happens every year during the spring, but it simply seems more pronounced this year because rates had been so incredibly high for so long. 

If you were a travel nurse before 2020, you probably know most of this already. Generally, during the summer, you would expect a dip in pay and opportunity and aim to extend if you had the opportunity at a decent location. Then, when fall rolls around and more people are sick with influenza and other illnesses, you can strategically pick an assignment that pays a premium rate if that is your goal. 

How This Affects Pay Rates

So, let’s get to rates. Obviously, supply and demand have a direct effect on rates and what hospitals are willing to pay. If managers are struggling to get job applicants, they are more willing to offer a little extra money to entice you to work for them. If they are getting 50 applicants per open position, they realize they can save some money and still hire a quality candidate. 

Is it fair to get paid less for doing the same job? Many could argue either way, but unfortunately, travel nursing rates have always varied based on a variety of factors, and this is where we are right now. 

What the Future Holds

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Going forward, a few things will likely happen to the travel market. Travel nurses who were only traveling for the sake of very good rates or only for crisis rates will likely reconsider their plans for the future. For those who were traveling and returning home regularly, lower rates might mean it’s not worth it to keep traveling away from home. A large number may decide to return home to staff jobs rather than trying to make travel nursing work with a lower rate. 

For those travelers that are looking to keep working as travel nurses regardless of rate changes, this could be beneficial. As some travelers leave the workforce, jobs will once again be more difficult to fill, and hospitals will have to adjust rates accordingly. 

It is impossible to predict exactly what travel nursing pay will look like six months or a year from now. However, a fair estimate would probably be that rates will be lower through the summer months and then pick back up again in the fall. 

Will Travel Nursing Rates Ever Hit Pre-Pandemic Rates?

It seems unlikely. Short-term housing prices are higher than they were pre-pandemic, not to mention travel and living expenses. Hospitals will have to pay more than they did in the past to make it profitable for nurses to duplicate expenses and pay for travel. 

What you can likely expect is rates above pre-pandemic numbers, but don’t expect to see those $10,000 weekly packages any time soon. Aim to minimize your tax home expenses as much as you can if you want to make the most of travel nursing income, and think about whether you are traveling for profit or for fun. Sometimes the perks of being a traveler outweigh being a staff nurse, no matter the pay rate!

Our job board is a great place to search for your next travel nurse assignment. We have you covered with our housing page if housing is an issue. There you can search for what you are looking for in housing.

If you are a new traveler or looking into becoming a Travel Nurse:

Travel Nurse Guide: Step-by-Step

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