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Rabu, 28 Desember 2022

Travel nurses took high-paying jobs during Covid. But then their pay was slashed, sometimes in half.

 

Nurses attracted by talk of high wages found themselves far from home with their salaries cut at renewal time. But a series of lawsuits are pushing back.

In early 2022, Jordyn Bashford thought things were as good as they could be for a nurse amid the Covid pandemic.

A few months earlier, she had signed an agreement with a travel nurse agency called Aya Healthcare and left Canada to work at a hospital in Vancouver, Washington.

Before the end of her first shift at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, she said she realized other travel nurses there were earning even more than she was and asked for more money. Aya quickly amended her agreement and raised her hourly pay from $57 to $96. 

In January, her rate increased again to $105 as part of a new agreement. She thought that the high pay — and a generous living stipend of nearly $1,300 per month — meant she and her fiancĂ© could finally make plans to buy a house. 

But two months later, when her assignment was renewed, Aya slashed her hourly pay back down to $56, and then cut it still more to $43.80 — less than her initial rate.

“I do know that travel nursing is fluid, and you can lose your job at any time, but I wasn’t expecting [my hourly pay] to fall 50%,” Bashford said.

The boom in travel nursing during Covid exposed a practice that has existed since the industry’s birth 50 years ago, according to experts. Nurses attracted by talk of high wages found themselves far from home with their salaries slashed at renewal time, and only then grasped the wiggle room in their signed contracts, which were really “at-will” work agreements. But the sheer number of nurses working travel jobs, and the difference between what they thought was promised and what they pocketed, has led to a substantial legal pushback by travel nurses around the country on the issue. 

Traveling nurse Jordyn Bashford.
Jordyn Bashford.Courtesy Jordyn Bashford

This summer, Stueve Siegel Hanson, a Kansas City, Missouri, law firm, filed class-action lawsuits against four travel nurse agencies: Aya, Maxim, NuWest and Cross Country. As of Dec. 27, all were still pending. Austin Moore, the lead attorney, said the suits allege the companies pulled a “bait-and-switch,” offering nurses agreements at high rates and then slashing their pay after they’ve signed. Many of the alleged incidents occurred in March and April when, as NBC News has previously reported, the demand for travel nurses, which soared during the pandemic, began to drop.

“To go take a travel assignment is a really big deal, and to get there to have the rug pulled out from under you, for someone to collapse your pay, I just think it’s unconscionable,” Moore said. “They’re on the hook for a lease, and they’re scrambling trying to find another job, and it’s a really terrible set of circumstances.”

Maxim, Cross Country and NuWest said they could not comment on pending litigation.

In a statement, Aya said allegations of bait-and-switch “are demonstrably false.

Travel nurse companies contract with hospitals to provide temporary staffing to help them support their communities. Nurses are the heart of healthcare and we value the nurses who work for Aya, and go above and beyond to ensure they have an exceptional experience with us.”

“As is evidenced by Ms. Bashford’s employment with Aya," the statement said, "nurses also received mid-assignment pay increases at various times during the pandemic. Further, we understand when the government reduced subsidies to hospitals following the height of the pandemic, they in turn reduced pay to travel nurses.” 

$5,000 per week

Even in the industry’s earliest days, the 1970s, nurses could find themselves earning less than they expected. Advertisements touted an hourly rate of $8 to $11, but many nurses wound up making less than $6, according to Pan Travelers, a professional association of travel nurses.

Back then, there were no written agreements for the travel nurses, according to Pan Travelers. That began to change in the mid-1980s. At the same time, the number of agencies multiplied, fed by the hefty commissions that hospitals paid them.

Travel nursing became even more prevalent during Covid. Prior to the pandemic, there had already been a growing shortage of nurses nationwide, and the virus made the shortage worse. Agencies started offering nurses work agreements and renewals that extended far beyond the typical 13 weeks, according to six nurses who spoke to NBC News.

In January 2020, right before the pandemic, there were about 50,000 travel nurses nationwide, or about 1.5% of the nation’s registered nurses, according to Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA), an industry research firm. That number doubled to at least 100,000 as Covid spread, but according to SIA, the actual number at the peak of the pandemic may have been much higher. 

When the pandemic was at its worst, some travel nurses were earning $5,000 or more weekly, as NBC News previously reported.

Erin Detzel never earned that much. But in November 2021, at $78 per hour, she said the money was enough to get her to move with her husband and two kids to Florida for her first-ever travel assignment.

Erin Detzel.
Erin Detzel.Jennie Heller

Detzel’s 4-month-old daughter had respiratory distress syndrome and had also been hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. That Detzel’s mother-in-law was in Florida was another inducement to move.

“We needed help,” Detzel said. “I didn’t want to put my baby in day care, so that’s kind of why we did this. My mother-in-law’s the only family member that could watch them.”

Detzel rented a house. But by February, after her first 13-week contract, Covid hospitalizations had waned and the demand for travel nurses had fallen. Her hourly pay was decreased to $62. Then it dropped again, to $32.50.

Travel nurses are typically hired by recruiters via phone calls or posts on social media and in online forums, and according to the 11 nurses NBC News spoke to around the country, the recruiters often use words like “contract.” All but one said it’s the norm for the recruiter to name a price.

Bashford said she found her recruiter through an online travel nursing forum. She said she sought out Aya’s job postings, with advertised payment amounts, on its website after a recruiter started corresponding with her.

Detzel said she agreed to go on an initial 13-week assignment from AB Staffing, an agency that is not named in the lawsuits, after a recruiter cold-called her and told her what she’d be making.

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