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Facing staff shortages, UPMC triples pay for those who join its new travel nursing corps

Courtesy of UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster

UPMC is launching what it’s calling an in-house staffing agency for travel nurses early next year.

These staff will be a new category of UPMC employee who will receive higher compensation to be part of a corps that’s deployed throughout the 40-hospital system on six-week assignments.

Registered UPMC travel nurses and surgical techs will make $85 and $63 an hour, respectively. These rates are two-to-three times the salaries advertised by current UPMC job postings. Eventually, travel assignments might be open to other levels of nursing as well as respiratory therapists.

This initiative comes amid an ongoing nationwide nursing shortage. High demand has led many registered nurses to leave their hospitals for travel assignments where they might make as much as $12,000 a week.

“We’ve been losing nurses to agencies, people who want to travel, and they’re seeking a higher wage. So this is a way to reconnect with them and bring them back,“ said John Galley, the medical system’s chief human resources officer.

UPMC says it used multiple agencies in 2021 as turnover was reportedly more than double compared to 2020, when it claims it had no need for travel nurses. In 2022, the medical system is looking to hire as many as 800 travel RNs and surgical techs.

While she declined to say exactly how much UPMC paid to staff hospitals with travel nurses this year, chief nursing executive Holly Lorenz disclosed it’s “more than we want to spend.”

Because a large slice of what the hospital system currently pays for a travel nurse goes to the agencies that arrange the placements, Lorenz said UPMC will eventually save money by making these placements itself.

One way the medical system might poach nurses from established agencies is that as UPMC employees, the travelers will have the same benefit package as staff nurses. The stability might prove to be highly attractive, even in instances when UPMC’s hourly rate is lower than what someone can get through an agency position.

These benefits include pension and retirement plans, along with health insurance. While many travel agencies do provide insurance, this coverage is often not extended to nurses in between assignments. But unlike agency nurses, UPMC travelers will have less flexibility in deciding when and where to take assignments.

Another benefit of travel nursing is the travel; someone can see the country while making money. In contrast, some of UPMC’s most strained hospitals are located in rural communities that are not tourist destinations. Lorenz doesn’t think this will discourage potential employees; she says many former UPMC nurses who resigned to take travel assignments did so to pay off student loans.

“So our plan is to provide a competitive wage,” said Lorenz.

Nurses must work at least a year before being accepted into the travel program.

The creation of the travel corps may bolster UPMC employee relations. There’s often resentment on the part of staff nurses when their hospitals pay significantly higher rates to temp workers who do the same job. Reliance on staffing agencies was a chief complaint cited by nurses of the system's Altoona hospital during a demonstration this week.

Sandy Wagner, an Altoona ICU nurse, told WESA News that while she didn’t know all the details about the new travel corps, “I do know that in order to keep experienced nurses at the bedside, UPMC needs to work with us and invest in long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes to address the staffing crisis facing our hospital.”

Lorenz says this is a long-term solution for UPMC that will be around long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

In the short term, she anticipates that travel staff will be needed within all of UPMC’s hospitals. Current UPMC nurses and surgical techs who join the travel corps won’t be placed at the site they are leaving for at least six months. Similarly, staff who resign to work for an outside travel agency aren’t permitted to return to their former place of employment for a year.

Kiley Koscinski and Brett Sholtis contributed to this report.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.