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Nurses can earn much more as traveling nurses. But the job comes at another cost

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pandemic has proven just how valuable highly trained nurses are. Hospitals across the country are now paying several times their normal wages to traveling nurses helping in COVID hotspots. But big wage increases are not the norm for nurses who stay in their permanent jobs. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has the story of one traveler finding it hard to return to the old status quo.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Nursing has been a second career and a calling for Sara Dean of Nashville. She loved the hospital where she worked when the pandemic hit, but then she saw how much nurses were getting paid to travel - as much as $10,000 a week.

SARA DEAN: That's a life-changing number. That's a number that helps you pay off debt, move out of your grandma's basement or whatever you want in that case. I'm not saying we were struggling. We were a two-income household, but we made ends meet.

FARMER: So she took a leave of absence and signed her first three-month contract in New Mexico. Her boyfriend worked remotely. Her daughter was in virtual school. The money got better and better. At one point in rural Alabama, Dean's overtime rate was more than $200 an hour, and she was working 60 hours a week saving the lives of COVID patients. But after nearly two years, it was really cheerleading that brought them home.

DEAN: Harper, let's go.

FARMER: Dean yells up the stairs to her 12-year-old while blending a protein shake. They're on their way out the door to tumbling practice.

HARPER: I didn't really have that many friends. I just - I miss it so much, being able to be surrounded by different people all the time.

FARMER: Seventh-grade Harper is the ultimate boss, Dean says.

DEAN: And she's the one that says, no more traveling. I don't want to travel anymore. I want to go home. But that also puts me in a bind.

FARMER: Many hospitals won't hire local travelers, even though they're hurting for nurses. They want RNs to accept full-time positions, and the hourly rates aren't even close to the $120 an hour or more that travelers make.

DEAN: This makes me sound like I'm in it for the money, but essentially, I'm in it for what's best for my family.

FARMER: She's the primary breadwinner, and she's applying at hospitals that are still employing hundreds of travelers. So Dean is holding out for an acceptable offer. Parth Bhakta is the CEO of Vivian Health, which posts travel nursing jobs. The company is also helping some hospitals find a way to get out of relying so much on temporary staff, especially since staffing agencies tack on 50% or more.

PARTH BHAKTA: You're caught kind of between a rock and a hard place here in terms of, you know, what do you do in this situation? I think ultimately, health systems need to figure out how to retain their workers more and ultimately probably have to pay and incentivize their existing staff more.

FARMER: There are signing bonuses these days. Some hospitals are even trying out temporary positions that are almost like taking a travel contract. But they're still spending heavily on travelers, even as they ask regulators to investigate price gouging. The average pay bump last year for full-time nurses was only marginally more than usual, which is why pandemic travelers face such a difficult transition.

DEAN: Come on, kiddo.

FARMER: Sara Dean offers some encouragement as her preteen perfects her back handspring. She's taking advantage of her time at home. Meanwhile, she's trying out something entirely different - working part time at a spa near her house that offers rejuvenating IVs.

DEAN: I have done nothing but death and dying for two years. It is refreshing to do preventative health.

FARMER: Beyond how to pull back their nurses from traveling, hospitals are facing burnout like they've never seen. An estimated half million nurses are expected to leave the bedside entirely this year. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

SHAPIRO: And that story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News and National Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASH AND THE PAN SONG, "WALKING IN THE RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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