The Financial Myths of Travel Nursing

July 10th, 2012

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By , BSN, RN

Being a traveling nurse can be great fun. There is the adventure of seeing new places and meeting new people. There is the less encumbered life of knowing everything you really need fits in your car. Finally, there is the knowledge that you are good enough at what you do to walk in any door, any where, and hold your own professionally. This is all great stuff.

There are also hurdles. Being a traveling nurse can be lonely. You are often far from home when major life events happen (good and bad) and since you are already the relief worker it may be difficult to get to be with your loved ones. Don’t get sick: traveling nurses don’t get paid when they don’t work.

That last thought brings me to today’s topic. There are quite a few misconceptions about being a traveling nurse and most of those revolve around money.

I don’t think I ever had an assignment where at least one nurse in my unit wasn’t under the impression I was getting paid a boatload of money to work as a traveler. Trust me, it wasn’t even a rowboat.

How Much?

In general, traveling nurses make about the same hourly wage as staff nurses. Lets take a look. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last released salary numbers for nurses in 2010. The BLS shows that the median annual salary for a staff nurse in this country is $64,690 with $31.10 being the median hourly wage. In a quick perusal of other sites with more recent numbers, the median wage has not gone up significantly in any particular staff nurse field.

Traveling RNs, on the average, make between $30 – $40 an hour. Really not different from what your staff counterparts are making when it comes to straight wage. The variations in that 10-dollar range come from location and cost of living and from nursing specialty area. Not a boatload difference.

Now let’s take into account a few other factors. There is no vacation or sick day pay for traveling nurses. Yes, you can take off as many days a year as you like or can afford between contracts. But, no one will pay you if you aren’t in uniform and at the bedside. Get a cold, your sister’s wedding—you can probably get the days off but there is no money coming in while you are away. Also, if you miss too many days of work (think bad cold) your travel company will dock your paycheck for housing on the days you weren’t earning money.

Job Shortage

There isn’t always work available. In early 2009 I was working as a traveling nurse. With a contract nearing completion I was trying to decide if I should stay where I was or move on. The national recession had been in play for about two years. When I went to my company’s job listings I was shocked. In my specialty there were fewer than 10 jobs listed. I was working for the largest travel company in the country at that time and I had never seen so few jobs.

According to the Professional Association of Nurse Travelers, “Mid 2008 saw the numbers of nurse travelers peak at close to 30,000 full time equivalents (the bottom industry estimate is 26,000). In late 2008, travel assignments stopped rising, and there was a dramatic and precipitous drop of nearly half of the travelers on assignment by spring 2009 (some sources estimate an average 55% drop, and a few individual agencies saw a short trough of 70% of the peak). While the economic downturn is still lingering, in late 2010 travel assignments increased by 10 percent over the same period in late 2009, possibly signaling the end of the general employment downturn. However, the total number of travelers on assignment in early 2011 is still only a bit more than half the number in 2008.”

So, don’t be mistaken, when the economy goes downhill, one of the first places hospitals make cuts are in their use of temporary workers—nursing shortage or not. Since I had been invited I stayed put, particularly since another thing you have to remember is there are nurses just like you competing for exactly the same jobs.

Another myth about traveling is all the great bonuses. Yes, some jobs will offer sign-on or completion bonuses for a contracted nurse. They tended to be around $1,000. Keep in mind 33% tax rate on bonus money and you are down to $700 now. And, those offers will all disappear when the jobs disappear. They are employment incentives in times of prosperity.

It is level playing ground when it comes to other benefits. Just like staff nurses the major companies offer health and dental insurance but it’s not free. Just like with other employers, nurses are usually expected to pay a percentage. Some companies offer 401Ks and some may even contribute, but again this is no different than what the staff nurse is receiving.

Housing

There is one area particularly that can put a travel nurse ahead of the pack financially. That is in housing money. If you are a traveler and you don’t own a home or keep an apartment then you will have extra money in your pocket compared to staff nurses. Your housing or a housing stipend is provided as part of the job contract. Not paying mortgage or rent and utilities is a definite cost savings and makes the money you earn go a lot farther.

However, many traveling nurses own homes somewhere. They are still paying on a mortgage or rent, just like the staff nurse.

There’s lots of talk about how well you can do with a housing stipend. You can take the money, find your own housing, and pocket the difference. That does give you more cash but there are laws and taxes that come along with that extra money.

For me, the benefit of traveling was the adventure of going places I had never been. Work is work. One OR was like another, more or less. However, that time in New England, the roar of New York City, figuring out why New Jersey is called “The Garden State,” and spending a fall and winter in Colorado were all amazing experiences for this born and raised Texan.

If you are considering leaving your staff job to pursue travel nursing I wish you bon voyage. Those years on the road were some of the best of my life. If you think you will get rich doing it, think again. You could probably do as well financially by taking some per diem work in your area, downsizing your home, or just generally cutting back. What I can guarantee you will get is adventure.

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