ILLINOIS (WCIA) — The coronavirus did not cause a nursing shortage — it exposed it. It is something hospitals have been dealing with for longer than most current healthcare professionals can even remember.

The pandemic also brought more exposure to the appeal of travel nursing; both to the nurses who feel a pay raise is overdue and to the packed hospitals, trying to keep the level of care up to standard.

Jennifer Kowalewski reports to the COVID Unit at HSHS St. John’s hospital five days per week. When she finishes her shift, she doesn’t go home to her family – a husband and two stepdaughters. They live in Rockford. Instead, she drives 15 minutes south to the Double J Campground in Chatham, where she has a camper she stays in through the workweek.

Kowalewski is a travel nurse – one of the many that are staffing hospitals all over the country to help deal with surges of covid patients.

Before she started as a travel nurse at HSHS St. John’s in October, Kowalewski was a staff nurse at a hospital in Rockford.

“You know, I think the work necessarily isn’t overwhelming. What was overwhelming was that these people are so sick, and they, they can be good. They can be talking to you, like you and I are talking and then within an hour, they will need life support.” she described.

A growing percentage of nursing staff at several Central Illinois hospitals are travelers. Where a local RN might make a median wage of $1,500 a week, travel (or contract) nurses make closer to $5,000. And while pay is not the only reason nurses go this route, it is an undeniable factor at a time when their jobs pose an incredible health risk.

I would like to see travel nursing take a large hand in turning around nursing all together.

Jennifer Kowalewski, traveling nurse

For Kowalewski, the job perks include those higher paychecks and shorter contracts. She said the prospect of traveling anywhere in the country is nice too.

“I’ve always wanted to be a travel nurse since I was 19 years old, Kowalewski told us. “It was a dream of mine, but life took hold and I just didn’t do it.”

The perks of travel nursing are balanced by the sacrifices, according to Kowalewski. She is bringing home a bigger paycheck than she ever has, but she only gets to go home for a couple of days per week at most.

“I talked to my husband. I mean as soon as I leave the hospital he’s the first one I call, and he’s a big outlet for me. He’s very supportive,” the HSHS traveling nurse added.

Her family is on board with this decision. Her 8-year-old stepdaughter struggles with it sometimes, but Kowalewski said all of the struggles are worth it when she makes the trip back to Rockford every weekend.

“My instructor was saying, you know, these nurses can go here and go here, and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what I want to do,'” Kowalewski said.

“…Nurses are underpaid, overworked, just all around America, which is one of the reasons why I did choose travel nursing because I can choose not to be overworked. I can choose, you know, not to carry some of the burdens that a staff nurse does,” she continued. “I would like to see travel nursing take a large hand in turning around nursing altogether.”

There’s been a pandemic paradigm shift, according to OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center chief nursing officer Deb McCarter. There, RNs are leaving to become travel nurses at a record rate, a trend seen at countless other hospitals.

“It’s been so challenging, I think, for nurses at the bedside,” McCarter said. “There’s been, you know, travelers since the 1980s, but is now, currently related to the pandemic.”

When McCarter came to the Urbana hospital just over a year ago, 5 percent of her staff was made up of contract nurses. Now, it’s 15 percent.

“They see it as an opportunity for, you know, personal adventure or, you know, it’s pay incentive, or sometimes skill development,” McCarter shared, explaining the reasons her staff nurses have given for making the transition.

“Many of them comment that the reason that they do make those changes is because of the phenomenal pay opportunities. It’s allowing them to pay off a house, it’s allowing them to pursue those things,” Denise Smith added. She’s the Director of HR at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center.

The Mattoon-based hospital has 17 job openings for inpatient nurses.

The number of patients exceeds 100 percent occupancy more often than not, even pre-pandemic, according to SBL’s Director of Communications, Patty Peterson. That, and continued expansion, has led to an increased need to hire at any cost.

As of our interview Monday, the hospital had 23 travel nurses on staff.

“Five years ago, we only had three contract nurses, 10 years ago, we had zero,” Smith added.

Renée Cooper: Is it financially sustainable to keep bringing in more and more contract nurses?
Smith: “Well, it certainly has had an impact, you know. Patients are your first priority, and then, obviously, the team, and all the time you’re watching the bottom line.”

Renée: “Is there a world where we — instead of hiring all of these contract nurses and bringing in more of them — that we just slightly higher the rate across the board for resident nurses? Is that a discussion that’s happening? Is that oversimplifying it? Is there a reason we can’t do that?
Smith: “Well, I think compensation’s ever-changing. We revisit compensation on a very frequent basis and that’s the reason, you know.”

We asked McCarter at OSF the same question.

“Well, you have to be competitive with your other local hospitals,” she replied. “So you have to really look at those wages and make sure that your wages are very competitively marketable with other places. So no, not one hospital will raise their base pay to meet that because that’s really something that’s not done on a local basis, because everyone really wants their marketable salaries to be very similar or in the competitive market range. Because, if someone raises their rate over here, this hospital is gonna say, we’re going to have to raise our rate to compete, so everyone kind of stays within the same market value or the same equitable rate.

We’re told while nursing salaries can be flexible to competition from other hospitals, the gap between the pay for locals and travelers is unlikely to tighten. Although, for those hiring, the ideal employee is an internal hire.

“They’re committed to the organization, you know, they took this job because they wanted to be here. And then when your travelers come in, they’re only here for 13 weeks.”

The state has helped cover the added cost by hiring teams of travel nurses to fill the need at hospitals. Kowalewski said the pandemic exposed critical problems in the way nurses are treated at all levels of the profession.

“So I will say the state of Illinois has had opportunities for us to have resources,” McCarter added. “So we have been able to get state RNs and their travel. They recruit them through the state and they are free to OSF or other organizations that have taken this opportunity for them.”

Sarah Bush Lincoln has not gotten any state or federal money to offset the cost, according to Smith.

She told us, for most nurses, traveling remains a temporary career change.

“We had around eight, I believe, leave for travel positions in the late part of 2021, and within the same month, five of them returned to Sarah Bush,” Smith said.

“…So, while they’re receiving, you know, $5,000 a week for pay, they really still felt that they wanted to come back to our culture, our organization.”

“I know many travel nurses are taking this opportunity to build a life financially for themselves and for their family,” Kowalewski concluded. “And so I fully suspect that a lot of travel nurses will go back to staff jobs, because traveling is difficult, especially alone.”

Both hospitals are constantly recruiting. Mccarter says OSF is always looking at local nursing colleges.

We asked the Danville Area Community College’s director of nursing if students getting ready to graduate are considering the traveling route more seriously. She said their students are looking to get experience prior to even considering traveling.