By JENNIFER POMIETLO
The tide of coronavirus cases once again is receding in Florida, and with it, the demand for traveling healthcare professionals. However, the Delta variant, which hit hard and fast here, will likely have lasting effects in the healthcare system.
Already faced with a pre-existing nursing shortage, hospitals were not prepared for Delta with an adequate workforce. As a staffing expert who connects nurses and allied healthcare professionals with travel and permanent positions, I watched as open jobs in Florida hospitals soared to record numbers that tracked alongside daily Covid-19 cases and hospitalization numbers. In October 2019, roughly 400 travel healthcare job openings in Florida were active in our system on any given day. In August 2021 alone, there were about 1,600 Florida travel jobs open daily on our StaffDNA platform.
Florida healthcare systems were not only competing against each other for nurses, but they were also fighting other states facing a similar surge in coronavirus infections. Finding nurses to meet the increased demand was a challenge for healthcare facilities and staffing companies across the country. Hospitals were forced to offer sky-high pay packages to travel nurses in order to attract talent.
Throughout the pandemic, the average pay for travel nurses in the Sunshine State has more than doubled. Before Covid-19 a typical travel nurse pay package was $1,570 for weekly gross pay. At the peak of the Delta-driven surge, some hospitals in Florida offered were offering up to $9,600 per week. Now, the average weekly gross pay for a travel nurse is $3,770. We expect pay packages will come down somewhat, though we think they will remain elevated above 2019 levels.
With the decline in hospitalizations, the number of open jobs listed through our platform has also dropped to levels more closely reflecting pre-pandemic levels. In October 2021, this number averaged between 475 and 500. As crisis rates decrease, we expect the normal industry flow to resume. There will be increased demand with the approaching “snowbird season,” specifically for PCU, ICU and respiratory therapists in areas like Orlando and South Florida. January pre-books will happen on schedule, and there will be a spike in demand for holiday and New Year coverage.
When both the number of travel nurse job openings and the average pay packages decrease, travel nursing will become less lucrative. Some nurses who left their permanent staffing positions for travel nursing during the pandemic will return to permanent positions, equipped with added skills from having worked under pressure in new environments and “floating” roles.
In one key change to keep an eye on, nurses who tried travel nursing for the first time during the pandemic have been hesitant to return to permanent jobs. Many have gotten used to higher-than-average pay packages, and they may expect this elevated pay level to continue. This is a concern for hospitals and healthcare networks that are already stretched thin financially after 18 months of filling urgent positions using top dollar rates and purchasing PPE and increased sanitation materials.
While high pay packages will continue to be a driving factor for nurses, hospitals should be exploring other forms of benefits to attract top talent. It’s clear in the long term that we all need to do more to address the nursing pipeline. According to a recent report commissioned by the Florida Hospital Association and the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, the state will face a shortfall of more than 59,000 nurses by 2035.
Whether we are finally seeing Covid-19 recede for good in Florida or there’s yet another surge in cases, we believe the state’s healthcare systems are now better prepared to summon necessary resources should the need arise. Hospital administrators have a much better idea now of the havoc that Covid-19 can wreak and the speed at which it can do so, and a better plan in place should that happen again.
Jennifer Pomietlo is the vice president of strategic development at StaffDNA, a digital marketplace for permanent and travel healthcare careers. StaffDNA, which launched its app in June 2020, helps solve staffing needs in more than 3,000 healthcare systems in 31 states. You can find out more about StaffDNA at www.staffdna.com.