Worn-out nurses hit the road for better pay, stressing hospital budgets -- and morale

Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio on

Published in Business News

In parts of the country where COVID-19 continues to fill hospitals, a rotating cast of traveling nurses helps keep intensive care units fully staffed. Hospitals have to pay handsomely to get that temporary help, and those higher wages are tempting some staff nurses to hit the road, too.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, there’s some truth in a joke circulating among frustrated ICU nurses: They ask their hospitals for appropriate compensation for the hazards they’ve endured. And the nurses are rewarded with a pizza party instead.

Theresa Adams said that’s what happened at the Ohio hospital where she worked. The facility across town was offering bonuses to keep its nurses from leaving. But not hers. They got a pizza party.

“I heard a lot of noise about ‘Well, this is what you signed up for.’ No, I did not sign up for this,” she said of the unparalleled stress brought on by the pandemic.

Adams is an ICU nurse who helped build and staff COVID-19 units in one of Ohio’s largest hospitals. She recently left for a lucrative stint as a travel nurse in California.

Travel nurses take on temporary assignments in hospitals or other health care facilities that have staffing shortages. The contracts typically last a few months and usually pay more than staff positions.


Adams hopes to return to her home hospital eventually, though she’s irritated at management at the moment.

“I did not sign up for the facility taking advantage of the fact that I have a calling,” she said. “There is a difference between knowing my calling and knowing my worth.”

A reckoning may be on its way as hospitals try to stabilize a worn-out workforce.

The use of traveling nurses took off in the 1980s in response to nursing shortages. Although they’ve always been paid more for their flexibility, some traveling ICU nurses can now pull in as much as $10,000 a week, which can be several times more than staff nurses earn.


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