Salary Rates for Travel Nurses Remain Strikingly High, Spurring States to Lobby Against Alleged Price Gouging by Staffing Agencies
Proposed regulation to limit rate increases during health crises gets pushback from staffing agencies and travel nurses who disagree with salary restrictions
Hospitals across the nation are seeking relief from skyrocketing costs due to increased demand for temporary workers—especially travel nurses. This has led organizations like the American Hospital Association (AHA) to step in and call for legislators to cap spiking salary rates. Many clinical laboratories report similar increases in salaries following the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 for medical technologists (MTs), clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs), histologists, and other skilled positions. This increase in salaries of lab scientists was mirrored by an even greater increase in the cost of travel MTs.
According to analysis conducted by Becker’s Hospital Review of hiring data from Vivian Health, an online job placement website for healthcare professionals, “Average weekly travel nurse pay climbed from $1,896 in January 2020 to $3,782 in December 2021, a 99.47% increase.”
A prior study by Kaufman Hall and Associates, LLC., found rates for temporary workers almost 500% higher than pre-pandemic times. While numbers are trending downward, it’s clear that rates are still high enough to cause alarm, KFF Health News reported.
“During the pandemic there were staffing companies who were making a lot of promises and not necessarily delivering,” Dave Dillon (above), VP of Public and Media Relations at Missouri Hospital Association, told KFF Health News. “It created an opportunity for both profiteering and for bad actors to be able to play in that space.” (Photo copyright: L.G. Patterson/Missouri Hospital Association.)
AHA Alleges Price Gouging
Demand for temporary healthcare workers surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, because supply was limited, salaries for temporary workers—such as travel nurses—soared as well. This dramatic increase in hospitals’ costs prompted the AHA in 2021 to send a letter to the Federal Trade Commission seeking relief for healthcare providers from what the organization called “anticompetitive pricing by nurse-staffing agencies.”
In January 2022, about 200 House members urged then White House COVID-19 Response Team Coordinator Jeffrey Zients “to investigate reports that nurse staffing agencies are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their profits at the expense of patients and the hospitals that treat them,” an AHA new release noted.
In an AHA House Statement titled, “Pandemic Profiteers: Legislation to Stop Corporate Price Gouging,” the AHA wrote “Our concerns range from potential collusion to increased prices way beyond competitive levels and/or egregious price gouging and the impact these behaviors could have on efforts to care for patients and communities.”
Temporary nurses make up a large portion of staff nationwide with 1,760,111 employed nationally as of September, according to Zippia research. With some nurses commandeering $40,000 signing bonuses and pay rates up to $10,000 a week for ICU nurses during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the significant impact of these rate hikes cannot be ignored.
“We have received reports that the nurse staffing agencies are vastly inflating price by two, three, or more times pre-pandemic rates, and then taking 40% or more of the amount being charged to the hospitals for themselves as profits. This situation is urgent and reliance on temporary workers caused normal staffing costs to balloon in all areas of the country,” Representatives Peter Welch, D-VT, and Morgan Griffith, R-VA, wrote in the letter submitted by the AHA to House members.
States Take a Stand
But nothing was done at the federal level to cap rates for travel nurses, so hospital organizations in 14 states lobbied legislators to cap rates at the local level. However, this has proven to be problematic.
At this time, at least 14 states have proposed legislation that impose limits on what temp nursing services can charge and what stipulations they must follow during a crisis. Navigating this patchwork of state laws could be challenging for both hospitals and temporary nurses.
Some states are taking sterner measures, KFF Health News reported:
- Missouri regulators proposed legislation that would allow felony charges to be brought against healthcare staffing agencies that raise prices during emergencies.
- Texas lawmakers proposed legislation that would administer civil penalties against agency price-gouging—laws which the state does not have on the books at all—and also would allow fees up to $10,000 to be assessed per violation of the proposed law.
- New York proposed amendments to legislation that would cap the amount temporary staffing agencies could charge.
Nurses, Staffing Agencies Tell Their Side
The implementation of new laws to protect hospitals from alleged temp agency price gouging presents new challenges. One issue is state-to-state competition.
“It might become difficult to hire travel nurses, and some states could face a lower-quality hiring pool during a national crises if the neighboring state doesn’t have strict measures,” Hannah Neprash, PhD, Assistant Professor, Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota, told KFF Health News.
And financial handcuffs may not sit well with staffing agencies that feel misunderstood by hospital organizations pushing for regulation. According to KFF Health News, “Typically about 75% of the price charged by a staffing agency to a healthcare facility goes to costs such as salary, payroll taxes, workers’ compensation programs, unemployment insurance, recruiting, training, certification, and credential verification, said Toby Malara, a Vice President at the American Staffing Association trade group.”
Malara added, “hospital executives have, ‘without understanding how a staffing firm works,’ wrongly assumed price gouging has been occurring. In fact, he said many of his trade group’s members reported decreased profits during the pandemic because of the high compensation nurses were able to command,” KFF Health News reported.
Not surprisingly, many nurses have also come out against government regulation of their wages.
“Imagine the government attempting to dictate how much a lawyer, electrician, or plumber would make in Missouri. This would never be allowed, yet this is exactly what’s happening right now to nurses,” Theresa Newbanks, FNP, a nurse practitioner who is affiliated with several hospitals in multiple states.
Creative Responses Required
Increases in both rates and legislation continue to spur creativity among hospitals needing to fill shifts, support staff, and prevent worker burnout.
The American Hospital Association December 2022 Task Force noted this in their “Creative Staffing Models” paper. The AHA cited telehealth visits, technical support, and working with non-traditional partners as beneficial ideas. These were also noted as meaningful ways to recruit and retain staff.
Other hospital systems have even created their own staffing agencies. Allegheny Health Network (AHN) developed a variety of systems where nurses can work a single weeklong assignment, multiple-week assignments, or transfer to other facilities, Kaiser Health News reported. While these staffing scenarios make up a small percentage of the hospital staff, it’s a worthwhile addition to increase options for nurses.
Staff turnover for RNs increased from 8.4% to 27.1% last year, as reported by the 2022 NSI National Healthcare Retention and RN Staffing Report. Finding solutions to staffing shortages—and consequently increased temporary nursing cost—is crucial because burnout is still a problem, just as it is in clinical laboratories and pathology groups.
—Kristin Althea O’Connor