Why Do Travel Nurses Make So Much?

We know. People always say you shouldn’t talk about money, religion or politics. We’re not about to touch those last two, but we completely disagree that you shouldn’t talk about money, especially when it comes to travel nurse jobs. After all, this is a job, not a charity, and all healthcare travelers should expect to earn a wage that makes up for all the negatives of the job, such as constantly moving, going through the onboarding process up to four times a year and completely uprooting their lives and living far away from family and friends.  

These jobs do pay more and we’re here to help break down why, then go through what you can expect out of a pay package when you take a travel job with Triage. Read on and you’ll be able to give a thorough answer the next time you’re asked why do travel nurses get paid more. 

Do Travel Nurses Make More Money? 

Yep. Travel nurses are indeed paid more so when someone asks you ‘do traveling nurses make more money,’ you can give them an adamant yes. Travel nurses and other healthcare travelers, such as lab, rehab and other allied travelers often receive a higher hourly rate than a staff nurse or staff member would. Travel nurses and allied travelers are also paid weekly. While this doesn’t actually change the amount you’re paid, it feels like it does. We totally get it. 

This higher rate of pay does come with a few considerations. Travelers aren’t eligible for maternity leave or things like company-sponsored disability insurance through the traveling agency (though it may be possible to find outside coverage on your own). Travelers also have a higher rate of pay because their jobs can be unstable. While the vast majority of contracts start and finish on schedule, it is possible for things to change. Whether it’s starting a contract late or being asked to finish early, travelers have to be flexible with their time if the facility changes things at the last minute. While rare, it is a possibility for travelers and why it’s recommended to have a nest egg before taking the travel plunge. This uncertainty is also a part of why travelers are paid more. It’s a risk-reward equation.  

What Else Is Included in Travel Nurse Pay? 

When you’re ready to look at a job, it’s important to understand the travel nursing pay breakdown. What actually happens with your paycheck each week? 

We know travelers receive a higher hourly rate, but they also receive tax-free stipends for housing, which increases their take home pay. This isn’t just free money though. Travelers have to pay to maintain their “tax-home,” AKA the place where they live full-time. Usually this is where their driver’s license is issued and where they pay taxes, own a home or rent an apartment. It’s also usually in the state where their primary nursing license is issued. Maintaining your tax home can be owning a home, renting an apartment or even renting a room from someone else. You should always consult a tax professional to make sure you’re following the tax requirements of the stipend and your tax home though. For instance, renting a room that’s far under a “fair-market” rate for the area you’re in could flag the IRS. A tax professional can let you know if you’re following the rules.  

This stipend is meant to cover secondary housing costs, such as a hotel, Airbnb or apartment rental in your temporary location. Many travelers try to pocket a good portion of their stipends by rooming with a friend or fellow traveler to reduce their housing expenses. Some hotels or extended stays offer discounts for healthcare travelers so if you want to stay in a hotel, make sure you check with the front desk to see if they have any discounts for a long-term stay. 

Although the stipend is meant to cover your secondary housing costs, you’re not obligated to use the entire stipend, as long as you can prove that you’re duplicating expenses during your entire contract. This means that if you’re driving back home after each shift and sleeping in your own bed, you likely don’t qualify for the tax-free stipends. Also, if you’re only planning on renting a hotel room for three days each week and driving home on your off days, you need to talk to a tax professional to see if that meets the requirements for receiving the tax-free stipends. Remember, your agency isn’t a tax professional and may not understand all the intricacies of tax law so find a trusted tax professional who fully understands healthcare travel. Then, listen to that person when it comes to your finances. No one, and we mean no one, wants to have the IRS come calling.  

How Does Travel Nursing Pay Work? 

Before your agency can pay you, there are a few things to do. You’ll need to go through all your HR paperwork, such as sending in your I-9 documents and learn how the agency wants your timesheet each week. For most Triage travelers, time sheets are sent in no later than Monday at noon each week, and then they’re paid the next Friday. Things like benefits, 401k or HSA contributions are all taken out of your paycheck just like a staff employee.  

One thing to note—travelers are not paid the first week of their assignments. This is because you send in your timesheet the Monday after you work, recording your time for the previous week. In your first week, you haven’t sent in a timesheet yet, so you won’t get a paycheck that first Friday. Most of the time it’s understood without saying, but it’s always better to be really clear and transparent, especially surrounding pay. We don’t mess with anyone’s paycheck.  

What About Benefits? 

It’s thought that agency nurses miss out on a lot of benefits, but that’s not really the case. It’s common for travelers to have access to things like health, vision and dental insurance, as well as a health savings account if you’re in an eligible health plan. At Triage, healthcare, dental and vision insurance starts on Day 1 of your assignment. If you don’t sign up for benefits right away, your insurance is retroactive to Day 1 of your assignment, which means you’ll have to pay back-dated premiums. It also means that if you paid out of pocket for a prescription or doctor’s visit between Day 1 of your assignment and when you signed up for insurance, you can resubmit the claim. Obviously, if you decline benefits or don’t sign up, you won’t have agency-sponsored coverage at all. 

Some travelers prefer to find their own benefits, especially if they like to switch agencies throughout the year. This means that travelers can only have to worry about meeting one insurance deductible, which is important if you have something big happen like surgery, welcome a new baby or have another large medical expense. However, if you do choose to use your own benefits, understand that you need to look for the right plan. Some plans may not be ACA compliant, which means they won’t cover pre-existing conditions or even pregnancy. Travel agencies can negotiate rates and typically cover a portion of your premium, so if you’re offered a rate significantly lower than the rate your agency offers, read all the fine print. It may be okay, but this is when you want to double check so you’re not stuck with a huge medical bill for an uncovered event if you have something pop up. 

Want a 401k? Triage allows travelers to sign up and contribute their own funds any time after they receive their first paycheck. Looking for that company match? After a year of employment with Triage and 1,000 hours worked, you’ll be eligible for a Safe Harbor company match on your 401k. Triage will match 100% of your first 3%, plus 50% of your next 2%. That’s basically a 4% company match. Additionally, the company match is always vested, which means it’s yours, even if you decide to take a staff job and no longer work with Triage. It’s like free money, just for working with Triage.  

Why Are Travelers Necessary? 

Oftentimes, nurses wonder why a facility might pay more for short-term help, rather than hire a full-time employee. Although the reasons can vary, one reason is that the needs can be short-term. Perhaps the facility is filling a spot for an employee who is on maternity leave, out for a long-term military duty, on medical leave or any other reason. In a case that this when the facility has a specific end date, it makes more sense to hire a short-term traveler than a full-time employee who will stay until after need is gone.  

Another reason is that maybe the census is higher during a specific time of year. For instance, in some southern states, travelers are needed because people flock to these states during the winter months. More people living in a location also means more surgeries, accidents and hospitalizations, which increases the need for medical travelers. It’s honestly that simple.  

Why Hire Travelers Over Full-Time Staff? 

Many people, include regular hospital staff wonder why the hospital would choose to pay for a traveler instead of hiring full-time help. The truth is that paying for a traveler, even at a much higher rate, is less expensive in the long term. It can be costly to hire full-time, long-term employees. They have to consider insurance and benefits, orientation costs, annual raises and more that all adds to the cost of hiring an employee. It doesn’t always make sense to the facility to hire a full-time employee if they have a short-term need, even if it costs more for a brief time. Or, perhaps the facility is low on support staff, such as human resources, onboarding and the other folks that help keep the facility running. Without this support staff, a hospital can’t create job openings, conduct interviews, onboard new employees and more. In these cases, it can be easier for a facility to simply work with an agency to take care of these things rather than worry about everything that’s involved with hiring nurses and other staff.  

Also, a hospital doesn’t want to over hire, especially if they only need help in the short term. If they hire too many employees, then they need to worry about canceling shifts or letting people go as the facility needs change.  

Lastly, because of the strict requirements of becoming a healthcare traveler (two years of recent experience in the specialty you want to travel in), you are able to dive right in. Travelers typically don’t get a lot of orientation, where a brand new nurse goes through months of training, both on the job and outside of the floor. When a hospital hires a traveler, they know that this person can make an immediate impact because of their experience. It doesn’t mean that a brand new nurse isn’t needed, but the ramp up time can mean there’s a waiting period before the nurse can truly work independently. When the hospital has an immediate need, a traveler is able to meet that.  

Now that you understand why do travel nurses make more, it’s time to decide if this is the right choice for you. The first step is to connect with a Triage recruiter or visit our allied or travel nurse jobs board.