Travel nurses have rescued N.J. hospitals. But have they come at too high a price? - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Travel nurses have rescued N.J. hospitals. But have they come at too high a price?

Taken from

By Spencer Kent

February 17, 2020

The bodies remain ingrained in the nurse’s mind.

Johri Mathew has been surrounded by death in the pandemic, caring for intensive care patients and working in the hospital morgue during a recent year-long tenure at Holy Name in Teaneck. The travel nurse witnessed the savage toll COVID-19 has taken on the sick — and on the staff that cares for them.

“I was at the morgue, unfortunately, moving a lot of these bodies over to the freezer,” he said matter-of-factly. “I was in the ICU helping out … and it was — it was bad.

“It was bad.”

Mathew saw the weariness on the nurses’ faces. He heard the exasperation in their voices.

And during any given shift, he knew the conversation was coming: A staff nurse might approach him, discreetly and unsolicited, asking what the job of a travel nurse is like — and if the pay is as good as everyone says.

Mathew tells them the truth as he sees it.

Unlike travel nurses, hospital workers are “not getting paid the right amount of money that they should be,” the Mickleton resident said in his deep, calm voice.

A former staff nurse himself, Mathew knows the trauma they have endured and the frustrations they harbor over pay and increasing workloads, contributing to serious staff shortages in New Jersey hospitals. Travel nurses — contracted registered nurses who work in short-term roles — have helped fill the gaps at several health systems across the state during the pandemic.

But soaring demand has driven up their price by 100% to 150% since 2020. Not surprisingly, the once little-known industry is suddenly headline news, stirring heated debate — even reaching the ears of Congress — over their steep costs.

Some hospital groups, including the New Jersey Hospital Association, are calling for oversight of the staffing agencies that place travel nurses “to ensure that their high rates are actually benefiting the healthcare staff, versus being kept in profits,” the NJHA said in a statement to NJ Advance Media.

Meanwhile, nursing unions and travel nurses contend hospitals are the problem, failing to maintain appropriate staffing or offer commensurate pay. As a result, health care workers are leaving acute-care facilities in droves, with many joining the ranks of travel nursing.

“Anywhere you go, it’s hard for them to get paid for what they do,” Mathew, 48, said of hospital nurses, “for the amount of work that they do, the hours they’re expected to work and all the responsibilities that are thrown upon them.”

Supplied by independent agencies, travel nurses work temporary assignments on contract, often lasting six months to a year. They are usually experienced and highly skilled, ready to work on day one with little orientation.

But they come at a premium.

Travel nurses often make at least $100,000 a year and can top $200,000, according to staffing agencies. On average, a registered nurse in the U.S. makes $75,330, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In New Jersey, it’s higher — about $85,000.

The pay disparity explains why many full-time nurses are leaving hospitals to become travelers, as they’re known. Many are then contracted to work in hospitals, but for more money than they earned on staff.

Nurses are leaving acute-care jobs for other reasons too. They’ve witnessed two years of COVID-related suffering and death. They are caring for more patients and working longer shifts. And many face verbal and even physical abuse from unruly and frustrated patients.

Some feel it’s no longer worth continuing in an emotionally taxing profession for the pay they receive.

“I’ve seen new nurses in the bathroom crying because they cannot handle the workload,” said Debbie White, a registered nurse and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE), the state’s largest nurses union. “I’ve seen them go on (and) leave the profession altogether.

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