What is a Traveling Nurse?
I get this question a lot, and I want to answer it, but part of me wants to first answer the question 'what is a nurse?' Many people have the image of nurses as angel-faced girls in white uniforms, offering sponge baths, and mouth-to-mouth, and something for the pain. That is not nursing--that is porn. A conversation I had on a hike recently with a nurse who has just about hit her one year mark as an RN sums up nursing a little better. We had been warned about mountain lions before we took off.
"I'm a psychiatric nurse," my friend said, flatly. "I'll happily deal with the mountain lions. It will be a break."
I chimed in with, "yea...you might be able to reason with a mountain lion." And off we went.
I learned about travel nursing when I started working as a nurse, and it sounded too good to be true. Essentially, you are hired on contract as a temporary worker in a hospital, are paid a salary, and provided corporate housing. Agencies all over the country work to match staffing needs with available nurses. In the hospital setting, travel nurses are known as agency or contract nurses, but most often we are just called travelers. Typically, a contract lasts 8-13 weeks, with the option of extending. An agency nurse decides on a place he or she would like to go, and a recruiter starts looking for contracts in the area. If your home state is part of one of the now 24 different compact states, and you plan to travel to another compact state, you do not have to apply for an additional RN license. If you are out of the compact, or traveling to a non-compact state, you will need to research what is involved in attaining a license for that state. Staffing contracts are usually formed 30-60 days out of a start date, but I personally have taken a contract on as short as a week's notice. Nurses who travel for strikes may leave in as short as 24 hours from the recruitment call. For specialty types of nursing--OR, critical care, neonatal, or labor and delivery, most hospitals require 2 years of experience, but there are available contracts for those who have only 1 year of experience. I traveled after a year of nursing experience and I'm often asked if I would recommend that to another nurse. My answer is that it's a highly individual decision. I certainly had a lot of nurses try to talk me out of traveling that early, but my mind was made up. In preparation for early travel, I deliberately took hard assignments. If there was a train-wreck of a patient on the floor, and I was working, then everyone knew she was mine. If a nurse intends to travel early, I'd definitely recommend a plan similar to this. Travelers are expected to hit the ground running and as a traveler you are perpetually "the new kid." There is zero coddling in contract nursing, and in fact, there's usually an unspoken hazing period that occurs at a new hospital. Nurses do have a reputation for eating their young, and while I've had a very good overall experience, I've certainly met up with "Brunhilda" the ancient, husky voiced, broad-shouldered RN with an insatiable appetite for young nurses. It takes a fair amount of confidence, flexibility, and possibly a little bit of mental instability to jump into this. In my opinion, it's well worth it.
There are two ways to work contractually. You can work as an independent contractor, which is a complete headache to do, but is almost twice the pay. Most travelers work through agencies, and hospitals are far quicker to post staffing needs, and to hire nurses from an agency. If this is the route a nurse chooses to go, I recommend working with several agencies. What those who are considering travel nursing do not know when they are starting off, is that when all is said and done they are signing a contract. Nowadays, when I hear the word contract the next word that comes to mind is negotiate . I know a fair amount of business-minded nurses, but generally most nurses just do not equate what they do with business of any kind. We go into nursing because we want to help, and fix, and heal and save. Nonsense like that. The strangest speech a nurse will ever hear is the speech she hears in orientation about "fiscal responsibility," and "business consideration." The industry of health care is very much a business, but I don't know any nurses that see it that way. Kind of makes me wonder what a screaming crack-head who is about to project a human from her crotch would look like on one of those grocery market conveyor belts, and how much she would ring up as when they scan her. Ding! $A lot.99.
So, negotiate. Travel nurses are expensive little suckers, but a good part of our huge expense comes from the pay the agency is receiving. I recently saw a featured contract in the bay area for $30 an hour for an OR nurse, and laughed my head off. That's a gross underpayment for an agency nurse in this area, especially for a nurse in a specialty. Everything is up for negotiation with an agency, the pay, your housing, and the time you need off. Nursing is crazy, contract nursing is nearly psychotic. It is way more risk, way more liability, way more work--therefore, it should be way more pay. Some agencies define "corporate housing" very different from others, and it's important to be clear about where they intend to house you right away. I was partial to the website www.allnurses.com for getting opinions on hospitals or local housing. I haven't used that site in years, but it was a good resource to me when I first started traveling. The other housing option is to take a living stipend, which is not taxable income, and ranges from $700-$2400 per month depending on which area in the country you are going. If you take a living stipend then you're on your own to find housing, either through a friend or some have even made use of Craigslist. As far as I know, the San Francisco Bay area pays the best in the country with its closest competitor being New York City. But then...you'd have to work in New York City. With New Yorkers. In an urban hospital. Can we get a round of applause for those people? Because good for them. Never tried that, and I'm way too soft for that now.
Logistics aside, travel nursing can be as romantic as it seems. You are constantly meeting new people, seeing new things, and having new experiences. Travelers are very, "what's next?" kind of people, and most I've met who travel in health care, in other industries, or for recreation find that the more you see, the more you realize you haven't seen. Traveling is the epitome of freedom in health care, and there are options to travel as an RN overseas as well. The most interesting contract I was ever offered was on a reservation, and I declined because it was a one-year commitment. I sometimes wonder if I should have done it anyway, and I can't say I wouldn't be tempted if I was called again for it. My own experience in travel nursing meant helping with the deliveries of everyone from diplomats to the homeless. I became a staff nurse in February of this year, because I love where I live, but I'd be lying if I said I'd never wanted to take another contract. Before my staff position, I did a count of the hospitals and realized that by age 29 I'd worked in 17 different hospitals across the country. If that sounds crazy, it's because it is crazy. But I was so busy--l just didn't even notice. I suppose I was soul-searching in all of that as well--and I did eat, I did pray, and I did love. It was great.