Need for nurses is driving record pay as coronavirus nears its peak

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Karen Fountain is no stranger to crisis situations. As a traveling nurse she’s cared for patients during dangerous times, including the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

“That’s what we’re made for. We can walk in and start working in a day, two days, we don’t need the full six months orientation, we can hit the floor running, and I think that what makes us special, unique, and able to assist,” she said.

Those specialized skills have never been in more demand.

The coronavirus pandemic is straining hospital systems across the country, which are dealing with an influx of patients. State and health officials are responding by adding beds, cancelling elective surgeries and reassigning staff. But more help is needed — especially more nurses.

Karen Fountain at work in a Bronx, NY hospital during the coronavirus outbreak.

Source: Karen Fountain

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been pleading for health care workers to come to the state, which is leading the nation in confirmed cases with over 92,381 reported as of Thursday.

In Ulster County, 75 miles from New York City, executive Patrick Ryan says the county has added 235 beds at St. Mary’s Avenue campus of HealthAlliance in Kingston and have commitments from two other local hospitals to double their capacity. Now, the county needs more medical workers to handle the increase. 

“Looking at the numbers, we knew we need to quadruple our hospital beds and of course the staff to go with it,” Ryan says. “We are concerned about having enough doctors, nurses and medical staff on the front lines.”

As demand spikes, staffing agencies are offering unprecedented incentives for nurses willing to enter hot zones. NuWest staffing agency is paying its hires up to $10,000 a week in crisis pay. It’s also offering relocation bonuses and tax-free housing and food.

Fastaff, based in Denver, specializes in sending nurses to places hit by natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. It typically pays above market rates for staff, but CEO Bart Valdez says the demand is so great that the company is increasing pay even further.

“Typically, when we’re fulfilling for a crisis. there’s three or four hot spots around the country that we’re focused on,” he said. “Since this is so widespread there’s a great deal more competition for these nurses.” 

Today’s crisis comes at a time when the labor market for nurses was already tight, he added.

Karen Fountain and co-workers hold up signs urging people to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Source: Karen Fountain

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the United States was facing a nursing shortage brought on by an aging population and aging workforce of nurses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care system will need to hire more than 1.1 million nurses by 2022 in order to replace retirees and take care of an aging population.

For nurses willing to answer the call now, the higher pay comes with higher risks. Fountain has been in quarantine for two weeks after being exposed to the virus while working at a hospital in the Bronx. 

She plans to be back on shift this week but says it’s not the money that’s motivating her to return to the front lines.

“I’m a little apprehensive of going back just because I know how bad it’s gotten since I went into quarantine,” she said.  “I have to go back there’s no way not to. It’s my duty. It’s my job. I’m a nurse.”

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