UPMC nurses say they feel tricked, lied to, and blindsided by their employer’s surprise announcement last week: The health care system plans to cut the hourly pay of nurses within its travel unit by 15%, starting Feb. 11.
WESA spoke with 11 different UPMC travel nurses across several specialties. The RNs all tell the same story: When they signed employment agreements, it was never disclosed that their hourly rate of $85 might eventually decrease.
Some nurses recall that they explicitly asked before joining the UPMC travel unit whether such a rate change could occur. The travel RNs say UPMC managers assured them — some employees more than once — that their pay would remain the same.
This about-face from UPMC is a breach of trust, said one nurse who works in labor and delivery, “I’m just really hurt. This is personal.”
“There’s been no honesty, no transparency,” a floor nurse told WESA. “Everything I’ve been told has changed.”
These nurses asked not to be identified as they fear retaliation from UPMC, which is Pennsylvania’s largest health system and non-governmental employer.
UPMC did not directly address questions about the nurses’ claims that they’d been promised their pay rate would remain unchanged. The health care system told WESA via email, “We are incredibly grateful to the UPMC nurses who are in the UPMC travel program. Their dedication and flexibility has been and will continue to be a key component of our care team.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses left the bedside in droves. To keep hospitals staffed, health care systems paid rocketing rates to agencies that contract with independent nurses.
Wages for these external contract workers spiked in January 2022, according to Robert Longyear, a researcher at Wanderly — the website connects health care workers and recruiters. Longyear says internal Wanderly data shows that two years ago the national median rate for travel nurse pay was at $94 an hour.
Around the time that travel nurse pay was at its zenith, UPMC created an internal travel unit to minimize its reliance on external staff.
“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, back when the initiative was announced in December 2021.
When it first launched its internal travel program, Longyear estimates that UPMC cut the amount it was paying for agency nurses by as much as 25%. But in the past 18 months travel nurse pay has steadily fallen, said Longyear, citing Wanderly data that shows the national median pay rate is now $59 an hour. This change is driven by the decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations, he said, as well as the end of pandemic-era programs that funneled money into health care systems.
UPMC’s travelers are full-time employees, not independent contractors. Still, UPMC seems to be gauging these economic shifts and the drop in agency nurse wages: “The healthcare landscape across the U.S. has continued to dramatically change and there has been a significant shift away from external agency use, including a rapid decrease in contract rates. The UPMC travel staffing program is now evolving, as others have across the country.”
UPMC travel nurses acknowledge that their six-figure salaries will stun some — the pay cut will drop their annual gross income from roughly $160,000 to $135,000. The RNs argue that it takes a highly skilled nurse to switch from facility to facility throughout UPMC’s 35-plus hospital network while still safely caring for patients.
Also, their jobs demand sacrifice. Parents of small children are gone for half the week, missing holidays and birthdays. Travelers are often assigned the most difficult patients by managers who favor regular staff. Constantly being on the road gets lonely.
Despite these hardships, some RNs told WESA they might be willing to accept the lower pay — but the money isn’t the only thing UPMC is changing for these full-time employees. Now, travel assignments are increasing from six-week to 12-week obligations. And instead of three consecutive days of 12-hour shifts, nurses in certain specialties will be expected to work five days of 8-hour shifts. For some with small kids or aging parents, being away from home for so long is untenable.
For at least one critical care nurse the schedule changes are too much. She told WESA she plans to leave her travel role for a regular staff job within UPMC.
“If I wanted to do a 12-week assignment and be away from my family, I would just go back to external travel nursing because the pay and the stipend are a lot more. And I can pick where I want to go,” she said.
Nurses speculate to WESA that forcing travelers into lower-paid staff positions is UPMC’s ultimate plan. But the critical care nurse doesn’t want to stay in the staff role for very long — just until she satisfies the terms of her bonus agreement.
Travel RNs who were hired from outside UPMC say they each received a $15,000 sign-on bonus.
Nurses say they’ve been told by management that they will have to pay back this bonus, in full, if they leave before the two or three years that they’re required to work at UPMC — even though UPMC has changed the terms of their employment.
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