If you're a traveling nurse— or want to become one—you're in a prime position to take advantage of what can only be called an enviable employment situation: The nursing shortage has health care facilities across the country scrambling for skilled professionals to ease their staffing load. That's why travel nurses are in such demand and why travel nursing agencies are so keen to recruit—and retain—qualified workers.
Of course, travel nursing offers immeasurable opportunities to nurses. On top of that, travel nursing agencies provide additional benefits in their efforts to draft and keep the professionals they contract with. (Case in point: One hospital offered a $5,000 bonus to travel nurses who were willing to work during the winter holidays, according to one travel nurse recruiter.)
Because benefits abound—and vary by agency, facility, and location—you'll want to know what's available. Here, representatives from several travel agencies share their expertise, giving you an overview of typical offerings and ways to reap their rewards.
All agencies reimburse you for travel expenses—either from your home to your new assignment or from one assignment to the next. Some agencies pay a flat rate per mile up to a maximum amount; others offer a set travel allowance per assignment or will arrange custom travel reimbursement to meet your needs. At most agencies, you can choose from different travel packages, and some agencies will assist with mileage for home health care assignments.
All agencies provide housing (usually furnished), but the type and cost vary. Some agencies offer free housing if you share the space (typically a two-bedroom apartment) with a roommate. Other agencies provide free private housing (usually a one-bedroom apartment, which you might be able to upgrade to a larger one for a small fee). One agency provides free private housing on all 13-week travel assignments.
Generally, travel agencies are willing to tailor housing to meet your needs. For example, they'll help find lodging that will accommodate a spouse, young children, or even pets. They'll also help you find housing that meets disabled family members' needs. One agency actually has coordinators of pet-friendly housing who work to accommodate their needs.
If you want to make your own housing arrangements, ask about a housing subsidy. Most agencies offer this option, which can range from $400 to $1,800 a month, depending on your location. As an alternative to the above, some agencies let nurses negotiate a housing stipend based on their perceived needs matched against known housing costs in the area. Agencies typically pay utilities such as water, gas, or electric, but you're responsible for phone and cable bills.
An executive at one travel agency relates that their company may not always find a beachfront apartment with a first-class view, but it's committed to providing the safest, most comfortable, and most affordable private housing available to its travelers.
Travel agencies commonly provide complete nationwide insurance plans for travelers, including major medical coverage; dental plan with coverage for preventive treatments; vision plan covering reimbursement for eye exams, single lenses, and contact lenses; and prescription drug plans. Typically, nurses who don't need coverage can opt to take an insurance stipend. Dependent coverage is available for an additional fee.
Agencies also may provide life insurance, professional liability coverage, and workers' compensation at little or no cost to you.
One agency vice-president explained that traveling nurses, as independent contractors, really can find good insurance and can tailor the coverage to meet their requirements. Plus, the monthly premium payments are deductible as a business expense from the first dollar; there's no waiting to reach a percentage of income as employees must do. Another agency chief described traveling nurses as true employees; that agency pays not only insurance premiums and normal employer-related taxes, but also liability insurance and workers' compensation coverage.
Most agencies offer 401(k) plans, and many have employer-matching provisions. For example, one agency matches 50 cents for every dollar you contribute up to a fixed percentage of your salary; another matches dollar for dollar up to a certain amount.
Check your agency's eligibility requirements: Some offer this benefit immediately; others have a waiting period. One agency recruiter explained that, if you're working as an independent contractor, you can contribute more to your retirement plan (that's pretax dollars) than those working as full-time employees are allowed by law. Not to mention that the retirement plan can go with you to any job or contract.
When you contract for an assignment (the typical length is 13 weeks), many agencies offer a sign-on bonus, and most offer completion bonuses when you finish each assignment. These bonuses may range from $500 to $5,000, depending on the length of your assignment. Usually, the longer you work, the more bonus money you can earn.
Other ways to earn a bonus include agreeing to take a hard-to-fill position or referring a qualified colleague who completes an assignment, earning you a referral fee. Some agencies pay a set amount, such as several hundred dollars, no matter how many people you refer. But other agencies offer progressively higher fees as you refer more nurses. For example, one agency offers $500 for your first referral, $750 for your second, and $1,000 for your third. One pays $1,000 per nurse referred—also for part-time positions and overtime. Some agencies will even pay you a bonus if you refer a hospital's business to them. One agency offers a seniority bonus that increases for each additional successfully completed 13-week contract, as long as you start a new 13-week contract within 2 weeks of completing one.
Types of bonuses and their amounts can be as variable as the assignment. Bonuses may be cash dollars or may include points for a travel award program, special incentive bonuses, completion bonuses, relocation bonuses, and performance bonuses. Check with your recruiter for the latest program being offered. Bonuses are typically paid by the agency, but may be paid by the client health care organization.
One agency is currently offering a $3,000 incentive bonus for professionals who haven't worked for them in the last 60 days. This is a combination sign-on/retention bonus. Another agency has a loyalty appreciation program providing continuing-education (CE) reimbursement, licensure reimbursement, 2 weeks' annual paid vacation (or $2,000 cash if you prefer to keep working), airline vouchers, and AAA membership.
Convenience and support
In addition to all the benefits described above, travel agencies continue to look for ways to keep their nurses happy. Sometimes, that means making routine money matters more convenient; other times, it means supporting educational opportunities or being there when they're needed. Let's take a look at some offerings.
- Money matters: Direct deposit of your paycheck, either in your hometown bank account or in a local account, may be available. If you'd like to have your money sooner rather than later, look for agencies that pay weekly instead of biweekly and that use a local check so you don't have to wait days for an out-of-town check to clear.
- One agency representative said her company gives traveling nurses more choice in how they're paid, such as a Cash Advantage Plan contract, which lets them choose a higher hourly rate on a contract that guarantees her hours at that assignment. Another representative said that his agency provides overnight delivery of “actual checks” or vouchers indicating a direct deposit took place.
- Another agency offers something new: a Virtual Instant Paycheck debit card. Wages, travel expense reimbursements, and even bonuses are electronically funded to an account set up for the traveler, giving her funds she can access instantly at ATMs or at restaurants and stores worldwide.
- This agency and several others offer travelers lifetime credit union memberships for ease of financial transactions and for payroll direct deposit. Besides offering competitive rates for savings and loans, credit unions can provide a range of other services, such as online banking, banking by phone, debit cards, and charge accounts.
- Support adds up: The best agencies encourage both your personal and professional growth. For example, when you sign an employment agreement with them, see if they make funds available to you for approved conferences, seminars, and workshops. Also take note of the CE benefits they offer, whether reimbursement for courses you take on your own or discounts on CE programs they sponsor.
Another benefit agencies might offer is help with your licensing needs, such as helping you get a new license for your travel assignment or paying for your license renewal.
Agencies usually have management staff available on call 24/7/365 to support you in case of emergencies. For more routine questions, some agencies also have 24-hour hot lines. One agency chief provides travel nurses with emergency pagers that connect to a vice-president who's authorized to assist them.
Some agencies have in-house information systems trainers available to offer computer assistance and to help with your personal computer questions via e-mail. Another benefit might be gift programs for birthday and anniversary celebrations.
How to take advantage
There's so much to take advantage of in travel nursing! See the United States while someone else helps pay for the trip—and even earn bonuses! Enjoy variety and choice in employment status, paid benefits, and tax implications. Build your résumé. Meet new people. Learn new techniques. Experience various settings. Earn money. Earn more money!
As you can see, travel nursing agencies offer a lot of benefits to suit your professional—and personal—needs. Depending on whether your agency treats you as an employee or an independent contractor, your paid benefits—and your tax implications—can vary greatly. Ask your recruiter to explain your agency's unique benefits package to you in detail so you know what's available. Then start packing!
Updated from “Take Advantage of Travel Nursing's Benefits,” by Rose G. Foltz, Travel Nursing2001
, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2001.