“Extra support” staff: Travel nurses impacted by hospital’s pandemic preparation

Many people might think that during a pandemic, hospitals would be overflowing with activity. It’s not uncommon to imagine overwhelmed staff juggling a lack of personal protective equipment and patients sick beyond repair. However, the truth for most places is far from it.

One of the little-known secrets of health care management during the pandemic is that many hospitals hire travel nurses, temporary staff who go where they are needed, often preparing for a surge that never comes. And just as often, what comes next are heavy budgeting, pay cuts and, worst of all, mass layoffs.

Anthro contacted three travel nurses, Krystal Jones in Palo Alto, California; Jawana Watson in Minot, North Dakota; and Necel Diestro in Fresno, California to hear their stories. Their pandemic experience tells a story of nurses at the mercy of their employers, many of which have overprepared.

“You would think if there was a pandemic that more nurses would be needed”

Krystal Jones, travel nurse

“You would think if there was a pandemic that more nurses would be needed but what has happened is the government kind of predicted that everywhere would be affected but that’s not really the case,” Jones said. “Some areas are more affected than others.”

However, even in the same hospital, different units are seeing different demands. 

“We don’t have any COVID or PUI [Person Under Investigation] patients because since I work in the cardiac unit, the hospital wants our unit to have only ‘clean’ cases,” Diestro said. “If ever there are any suspected patients, they will be moved to a different unit.”

“It’s happening all over the country”

Jawana Watson, travel nurse

In addition to areas not having many COVID-19 patients, many hospitals have canceled elective surgeries and are only doing mostly emergency cases. 

“There are very few things that are actually emergent,” Watson said, “so when you have these people employed in areas that normally are really busy, it doesn’t matter if they are permanent or travel nurses. They get furloughed [forced into a temporary leave of absence due to the special needs of an employer] or even laid off. It’s happening all over the country and travel nurses are the first ones to go.”

Travel nurses are expected to be flexible, often getting “floated” to different units that might need them. 

“You can be in a specialty, but overall a travel nurse needs to have a skill set to be able to go almost anywhere,” Jones said. “Being a travel nurse is a gamble. You are hired as extra support.”

The reality for these nurses is that because they are hired to work as “extra support” for a certain amount of time, hospitals can easily cancel or extend their contracts. Normally, a travel nurse’s contract lasts for only 13 weeks which can be extended. In rare cases, it can last for a lot longer. Diestro has been working at the same hospital for almost four years due to the previous high demand for nurses in her hospital.

“In the past, my hospital was hiring many nurses because for a long time they were really short on staff,” Diestro said. “But now, many travel nurses are having their contacts canceled because the hospital’s census is really low.”

“Before, I would be overwhelmed with the choices”

Necel Diestro, travel nurse

Now, Diestro is looking for new employment since her contract is ending at the end of May, and it is unlikely to be extended. However, her choices are not as plentiful as it was in the past. 

“Before, I would be overwhelmed with the choices,” Diestro said, “Now, there are very few hospitals that are currently hiring travel nurses right now. The possibility of getting an assignment right now is not very good because there is a lot of competition.”

While being able to travel almost anywhere in the country may seem like a glamorous job, often the constant change means unpredictability. Though there are multi-state licenses, many states that have a high demand for nurses often have their own state license to practice nursing. 

“Your nursing license is like your key to your car,” Jones said “If you don’t have the key you cannot drive. Without a license, I can’t work, so it must be protected and maintained. Every year there are required education courses that must be taken to keep your license in good standing.”