US hospitals are hit by a staffing crisis for nurses amid COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a nursing staffing crisis, forcing many U.S. hospitals to pay a maximum amount to get the help they need to handle the rush of patients this summer.

The problem, health leaders say, is twofold: Nurses are quitting or retiring, exhausted or demoralized by the crisis. And many go for lucrative part-time jobs at traveling nurse agencies that can pay $5,000 or more a week.

It’s gotten to the point where doctors are saying, “Maybe I should stop being a doctor and become a nurse,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer at Augusta University Medical Center in Georgia, which has occasionally seen 20 to 30 layoffs in a week from nurses taking traveling jobs.

“And then we have to pay premiums to bring staff into our state from another state,” Coule said.

The average wage for a traveling nurse has increased from about $1,000-$2,000 a week before the pandemic to $3,000-$5,000 now, said Sophia Morris, vice president of San Diego-based staffing firm Aya Healthcare. She said Aya has 48,000 vacancies for traveling nurses to fill.

At competitor SimpliFi, President James Quick said the hospitals his company works with are seeing unprecedented levels of vacancies.

“Small to medium-sized hospitals generally have dozens of full-time positions, and the large healthcare systems have hundreds of full-time positions,” he said.

The wage explosion has made it difficult for hospitals without sufficient pockets.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly recently lamented that the state’s hospitals are at risk of being outbid by other states that pay a “fortune” for nurses. She said Wednesday several hospitals, including one in Topeka, had open beds but no nurses to staff them.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Truman Medical Centers has lost about 10 nurses to traveling jobs in recent days and is looking for travelers to replace them, CEO Charlie Shields said.

He said it’s hard to compete with travel agencies, which charge hospitals $165 to $170 an hour per nurse. He said agencies take a big chunk of that, but he estimated nurses are still charging $70 to $90 an hour, which is two to three times what the hospital pays its nurses.

“I think people are clearly taking advantage of the demand that’s out there,” Shields said. “I hate to use ‘beaten out’ as a description, but we’re clearly paying a premium and allowing people pretty high profit margins.”

In Texas, more than 6,000 traveling nurses have flooded the state to cope with the surge through a state-supported program. But on the same day that 19 of them went to work at a hospital in the north of the state, 20 other nurses in the same location announced they were leaving for a travel contract, said Carrie Kroll, a vice president at the Texas Hospital Association.

“The nurses who didn’t go, who stayed in their facilities, now see these other people coming who are making more money. It offers a tense work environment,” said Kroll.

The pandemic was in its infancy when Kim Davis, 36, decided to quit her job at an Arkansas hospital and become a traveling nurse. She said she roughly doubled her income in the 14 months she treated patients in Phoenix intensive care units. San Bernardino, California; and Tampa, Fla.

“Since I’ve been traveling I’ve paid off all my debts. I’ve paid off about $50,000 in student loans,” she said.

Davis said many of her colleagues are following the same path.

“They go traveling because why would you do the same job for half the pay?” she said. “If they risk their lives, they should be compensated.”

Health leaders say nurses are bone-tired and frustrated from being asked to work overtime, from being yelled at and questioned by members of the community, and from dealing with people who have chosen not to get vaccinated or have one to wear a mask.

“Imagine going to work every day and working your hardest what you’ve worked and stepping out of work and what you see every day being denied in public,” said Chief Nurse Executive Julie Hoff at OU Health in Oklahoma. “The death you see every day is not honored or recognized.”

Meanwhile, hospitals are being squeezed through the revolving door of travel agent departures and recruitment.

Coule cited a recent example where his Georgia hospital hired a respiratory therapist through an agency to replace an employee who had decided to accept a itinerant assignment. The replacement came from the same hospital where his respiratory therapist had just gone to work.

“Essentially we replaced staff, but at double the cost,” he said.

Patricia Pittman, director of the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at George Washington University, said many nurses still harbor resentment toward their employers since the early stages of the pandemic, in part because they are forced to work without proper protective equipment.

“The nurses say, ‘Hey, if I’m not treated with respect, I might as well be a traveling nurse,'” she said. “‘That way I can work in a hell hole for 13 weeks, but then I can take a few months or three months off and go, whatever.'”

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas, and Kunzelman from College Park, Maryland.

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