BY Sydney LakeFebruary 17, 2023, 2:59 PM
A nurse takes care of a quintuplet laying in an incubator in Krakow, Poland, as seen in February 2023. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel—NurPhoto/Getty Images)
During the pandemic, hospitals, private practices, clinics, and other health care providers were hard-pressed for the resources they needed—and not just personal protective equipment (PPE) or masks. The demand for nurses and other health care professionals skyrocketed during the pandemic, which led to a greater need for travel nurses. And that unprecedented demand also helped drive extremely high salaries for travel nurses.
By December 2020, travel nursing salaries had reached nearly $3,500 per week, but the peak really came about a year later when that rate jumped to nearly $4,000 per week, according to data from health care recruitment platform Vivian Health. Between January 2020 and December 2021, average travel nurse pay had increased by more than 99%. As of December 2022, travel nursing salaries started to plateau at around $3,100 per week.
These rates reflect salaries for registered nurses (RNs), not nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners typically must earn a master’s degree in nursing or have continuing education and be certified to practice. “Nurse practitioners generally earn higher wages due to their advanced schooling,” confirms Katelyn Harris, director of client development at Vivian Health. For reference, the median annual salary for nurse practitioners in 2021 was nearly $121,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While weekly travel nursing rates may fall slightly during the first couple of months of 2023, these new salary trends will be the “new floor” of travel pay, says Tim Needham, senior vice president of product at Vivian Health.
“Despite wages stabilizing, we expect that temporary nursing contracts will continue to account for a significant portion of the health care labor workforce,” Harris adds. “While health systems eye labor as one of their costliest line items, clinicians will continue to seek out the higher wages, greater flexibility, and reduced bureaucracy associated with temporary contracts.”
During the past two years, the highest-paying travel nursing jobs have been with intensive care units (ICU), the emergency department (ED), medical surgery, and home health.
Pay for these specialties dipped during summer 2021 when COVID-19 vaccines first became available, but then surged again in late 2021 and early 2022 during the spread of the Omicron variant. However, maintaining hospital staff will become increasingly difficult due to their financial solvency and budgeting, Harris explains. Last year, more than half of hospitals were projected to have negative margins through 2022, according to a survey by the American Hospital Association.
“With the COVID Emergency Order coming to a close in May, this means that hospitals will not have the additional federal funds to support the steep labor costs that they incurred from short term contractors during 2020 and 2021,” Harris explains. “Despite wages stabilizing, we expect that temporary nursing contracts will continue to account for a significant portion of the health care labor workforce.”
The average annual base salary for registered nurses in 2021 was $77,600, according to the BLS. Assuming a rate of $3,100 per week for 52 weeks in a year, theoretically travel RNs could make more than $161,000. However, because travel nurses participate in contract work, their salary does not come from a stable source. Travel nurses can be out of work for weeks or months at a time, depending on demand and contract availability.
“Pursuing a career in travel nursing is not as lucrative as it was in the height of the pandemic,” Harris tells Fortune. “While travel nurses do have higher gross wages than permanent staff nurses, their weekly pay includes stipends for housing, meals, and other contract-related expenses incurred on assignment.”
Travel RNs also have to pay for housing in their home location (where they’re based), as well as where they’re completing their short-term contract, she explains, which is why it’s critical to evaluate the cost of living for a prospective contract location.
“Travel nurses may receive higher wages than their full-time counterparts because health systems are paying a premium to fill critical staffing needs,” Harris says. “However, travel nursing is generally only more lucrative than full-time staff roles when local cost of living is low relative to pay.”
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