ONA fears reliance on travel nurses as pandemic worsens


Patrick Jones


Travel nursing has become a standard in how hospitals staff during the pandemic, according to Matt Calzia, RN, nurse practice consultant with the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA). Calzia says COVID-19 staffing shortages led to a larger travel nursing demand, which then led to financial competition for travel nurses. 


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In Oregon, there is a declining nursing workforce according to nursing leaders, educators and stakeholders in a meeting provided by Oregon Center for Nursing (OCN). The burnout affecting nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic is a prominent factor as nurses start to retire or move into other professions. 

Calzia says travel nursing fills workforce gaps in hospitals facing shortages and is meant to fill these voids until the hospital can generate more nurses. 

Before COVID, travel nurses were mainly used during flu season influxes, summers, and holidays. However, chronic workforce shortages due to the pandemic are leading to increased competition for travel nurses. Calzia says:

“What we are seeing [during] COVID is [that] hospitals with 200 vacancies have a lot of competition to get travelers, because they can’t just fill 200 permanent position vacancies. Now, because of our inefficient health care system, which is based on competition, there is competition for the travelers.”

The chronic nursing shortages are also impacted by the improper treatment of nurses, says Calzia. He says hospitals are unwilling to address potential changes in breaks for nurses, leading to long shifts with little rest and burnout. 

“Travelers are going to remain a critical part of hospital staffing until hospitals start to realize that they need to invest in treating their existing workforce a lot better and focusing on retaining nurses, which they are not doing. The 12-hour shift where you might get ten minutes to sit down and eat, having to leave your patients with another nurse who now is caring for twice as many patients, that’s not functional. It’s a hard job and that just makes it more fatiguing.”

The pandemic has caused the rates of travel nurses to go up substantially, according to Calzia. Increased competition has led to inequities in resources since the better funded hospitals are able to pay for the travel nurses they need, leaving smaller hospitals without assistance. According to Calzia, this has an impact on the social determinants of health. 

“You see large, well-resourced medical centers in metropolitan areas being able to get these resources, while medical centers who are serving populations that have less access to care struggle to get those since they don’t have the same financial resources.”

With the rising rates for travel nurses, more permanent nurses are leaving hospitals to make more money, says Calzia. Another benefit enticing hospital nurses is time off between contracts.

Calzia says travel nurses are becoming the standard for hospital staffing, which is not wise financially and does not lead to the formation of the most efficient teams. He says better patient outcomes come from teams experienced in the tendencies of the other team members. To do this, teams need to work together for longer periods of time to form an understanding, trust, and efficiency, which cannot be found with travel nurses. 

Calzia says hospitals will continue to rely on travelers unless things change with the existing nursing workforce, and hospitals will continue to see high rates of turnover.