How Much Do Travel Nurses Make Image

How Much Do Travel Nurses Make? The Definitive Guide

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If you’re asking the question, “How much do travel nurses make?”, then chances are that you’re either new to travel nursing or you’re a traveling nurse concerned about their current pay package. The problem is that the vast majority of resources on this topic are provided by travel nursing agencies and lead generators both of which have an interest in providing generalized and ambiguous explanations designed to lure prospective candidates to sign up for their services. So in this blog post, we’ll take an in-depth look at how much traveling nurses make so you can set expectations accordingly.

Confusing Answers About Travel Nursing Salaries

For starters, it’s important to note that this article pertains to traveling Registered Nurses. However, all travel healthcare professionals can benefit from this information because all the factors that impact travel nursing pay are applicable to all traveling healthcare professionals.

With that in mind, if you search the internet to find out how much money travel nurses make, you’ll find huge disparity in the numbers provided. You’ll also find that the numbers provided are ambiguous. For example, if you do a Google search on: how much do travel nurses make: you’ll see that Google provides the “Quick Answer Box” highlighted below:

How Much Money Do Travel Nurses Make Wrong Answer Image

First, this answer comes from TravelNursing.org, which is a lead generator designed to get healthcare professionals to enter their contact information so that it can be sold to third parties. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s not an unbiased source.

Second, no matter how we crunch the numbers, we can’t get them to add up. We have no idea what they mean by a “48 hour work year“. So, let’s assume they mean a “48 hour work week“. At an average of $40 per hour and a total of $75,000 for the year, that means the traveler will only be working 39 weeks. So they’ll have 13 weeks off.

Now let’s assume they mean a “48 week work year” instead of a “48 hour work year”. At $40 per hour, the traveler would have to work 40 hours per week for 48 weeks in order to get close to the $75,000 annual income quoted by TravelNursing.org. We all know that RNs typically work 12 hour shifts, so it will be really rare for them to achieve these numbers. I guess it’s fair to say that even Google gets confused by travel healthcare pay!

Disparate Answers About How Much Travel Nurses Make

Meanwhile, you’ll also find a very wide range of quotes pertaining to annual travel nursing salaries. Below are some examples:

  1. Simply Hired: “The average salary for travel nurse jobs is $55,000.”
  2. Buzzle: “Experienced nurses, with a specialized skill set may earn more than $90,000, while the ones starting out may earn around $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”
  3. 50 States Staffing: “Traveling RN’s earn outstanding wages — far surpassing the *$64,000 median annual income in 2010 for nurses overall. Factor in the top salaries, 401(k), insurance, bonuses, free housing, travel allowance, free CEUs— and travel RN’s can make up to $100,000 annually.”
  4. NurseChoice.com: See image below:

How Much Do Traveling Nurses Make - One Opinion Image

As you can see, you could get the idea travelers make as little as $40,000 per year to well over $100,000 per year depending on which source you visited. Of course, there is a reason for this. Travel nursing pay is quite convoluted and how much each traveler stands to make depends on a litany of factors. Knowing the following information will help you determine just how much you stand to make depending on your unique circumstances.

Factoring In a Travel Nurse’s Costs Is Important

In a general sense, when we ask how much a certain type of professional makes, we rely on permanent jobs as the barometer. And we all have an understanding that permanent jobs have a basic set of costs associated with them. For example, we’re typically responsible for the cost of getting to and from our place of employment. We also tend to expect a basic benefits package, especially if we’re talking about skilled professionals like Registered Nurses.

Why is this important? Because travel nurses tend to incur a large set of expenses that other professionals do not and there are no standard benefits packages. Therefore, when someone says that the annual salary for a travel nurse is $75,000, it’s a big mistake to measure that quote against a permanent job. When determining how much travelers make, we must always take account of the potential costs. There are six primary costs to consider.

1: Travel Nursing Tax Home Expenses

Travel nursing companies offer all kinds of tax-free reimbursements. In order to qualify for tax-free reimbursements, you must maintain a tax-home. If you do not maintain a tax home, then virtually every benefit that that the company provides becomes taxable.

Maintaining a tax home will require a certain level of expenses no matter how you do it. The most common and easiest way to maintain a tax home entails paying for rent or a mortgage back at your tax-home. This means that you’re paying some level of duplicate living expenses. You will also need to maintain all your personal business back your tax home. Moreover, you shouldn’t work as a travel nurse in the same metropolitan area for longer than 12 months in any 24 month period.

Another way to maintain a tax home is to set up a home base where you work for 3 to 4 months out of the year. During this time, you pay full taxes on all the income you earn. Additionally, you maintain all your personal business in the area of this tax home. Finally, to maintain this tax home you’ll need to take travel assignments in various metropolitan areas never staying in any one area for longer than 3 months. Of course, by constantly staying on the move, you will incur some level of additional costs.

Tax home expenses are perhaps the most complicated factor to consider when determining the real value of travel healthcare pay packages. We will revisit this topic below to add further clarification.

2: Travel Expenses

Traveling between contracts costs money. Whether you’re driving, flying or taking the bus, there will be expenses incurred for lodging, food and transportation.

3: License and Certification Expenses

Travel nurses commonly secure licenses in multiple states. Licenses can cost several hundred dollars a pop. Travelers must also maintain their certifications. Unlike permanent employers, travel nurse staffing agencies don’t always cover these expenses.

4: Medical Benefits

As a travel nurse, you may want to secure your own medical benefits. This is because travelers routinely work with multiple agencies in order to land the jobs they want in the locations they want. And working with multiple agencies means that you could potentially change insurance companies often. This can interfere with your continuity of care, so securing your own benefits becomes an attractive option.

5: The Cost of Low Wages

Travel nursing pay typically includes a relatively low taxable hourly wage. The tax-free reimbursements balance out the package. For example, it’s common for taxable hourly pay rates to be between $20 and $25 per hour while non-taxable compensation variables can equate to anywhere from $15 to $40 per hour or more.

This means that the amount of money getting diverted to your social security retirement benefit is lower. However, don’t worry too much about this one as the actual cost is usually negligible.

Lower taxable wages will also affect unemployment and Workers Compensation/Disability payments. Therefore, if you run into issues that require the use of these safety nets, then this could be considered a cost.

6: Lack of Paid Vacation or Paid Sick Leave

The vast majority of travel nursing companies do not offer paid vacation time or paid sick leave. This should be considered a cost if we are to measure travel pay packages against their permanent equivalents.

But Don’t Travel Nursing Companies Pay for All of These Things?

I can hear every healthcare staffing agency saying, “But we provide almost every one of these benefits for free!” Fair enough. But you can’t then claim them for inclusion when discussing how much travelers make. Again, consider the quote from 50 States Staffing:

Factor in the top salaries, 401(k), insurance, bonuses, free housing, travel allowance, free CEUs— and travel RN’s can make up to $100,000 annually.

Many agencies frame pay packages this way. Unfortunately, it is both specious and ambiguous. Specifically, adding things like “free housing” and “travel allowance” when determining how much travel RN’s can make annually is specious. While the agency may cover the cost of housing, the traveler will most likely be incurring duplicate expenses at their tax home in order to qualify to receive that benefit. While the agency may cover the cost of travel expenses, this certainly can’t be considered income on the traveler’s part because it’s covering an expense.

Meanwhile, including benefits like 401(k), insurance and CEUs make these quotes ambiguous. This is because we typically wouldn’t include the value of such benefits when quoting how much a permanent employee makes. Therefore, including such benefits makes travel pay packages look higher relative to their permanent counterparts which are used as barometers for gauging compensation packages.

With all of that in mind, there is a possibility for travel nurses to make over $100,000 per year. It’s also possible for them to make much less. In addition to the costs described above, there are several other impactful factors to consider.

How Specialties Affect Travel Nursing Salaries

Bill rates for travel nurses vary by specialty. Bill rates are the rates that agencies are able to bill their client hospitals for an hour of the traveler’s time at the hospital. Therefore, bill rates are one of the key factors in determining how much an agency is able to pay for a particular job.

In most contracts between agencies and hospitals, there are two main classifications of bill rates, Standard and Specialty. The Standard bill rates are typically for Medical/Surgical, Post Partum, PSYCH and PEDS. The Specialty bill rates are for ICU, L&D, PICU, NICU, CVICU, CathLab, ER, OR and other highly specialized units. Telemetry is sometimes classified as Standard and sometimes classified as Specialty. DOU, SDU, and PCU sometimes have a “Mid” classification. There may be times that specialties are classified in different categories and there may even be more categories involved in some contracts, but these are the most common categorizations.

It’s common for Standard bill rates to be anywhere from 2% to 10% lower than Specialty rates. For example, if the Specialty bill rate is $68 per hour, then the Standard bill rate could be anywhere from $60 per hour to $66 per hour. There may be times when the difference between the two is larger.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that all else being equal, Standard rate specialties will make 2% to 10% less per year than Specialty rate specialties.

Different States, Different Travel Nursing Salaries

It’s true that the bill rates for travel nurses vary quite a bit from state to state. However, just because you’re getting paid more doesn’t mean you’re earning more. Remember, the cost of living varies from state to state as well.

California is the perfect example. The state is routinely cited as having the best pay rates in the country. However, the major metropolitan areas like San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are also among the most expensive in the country.

That said, it’s still possible to earn more money in such states. For example, if you’re willing to skimp on housing accommodations or share accommodations in San Francisco, then you could potentially earn good money. Additionally, if you choose to work in some of the less expensive areas of California like Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, or Bakersfield, then you can earn more because the bill rates are relatively similar to what you’ll find in the major metro areas.

How Work Weeks Affect Travel Nursing Salaries

Like any other job, the amount of time you spend working has an impact on how much you make as a traveling nurse. However, travel nursing is unique in this regard for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, agencies typically do not provide vacation time or paid sick time.

Second, it’s common to experience at least a little time off between contracts, especially if you’re moving from one location to the next. It’s often difficult to get the end of one contract to immediately coincide with the beginning of the next contract. So even if you’re staying in the same area but moving to a different hospital, you may experience a week or two off.

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to estimate how many weeks you anticipate working in order to properly gauge your annual earning potential. We think a good rule of thumb is 46 weeks. This gives you 6 weeks for travelling between contracts, vacations and any sick days you may incur.

Below, we will run some pay calculations so you can see how to use the estimated number of weeks to estimate your earning potential.

The Labor Market’s Affect on Travel Nursing Salaries

Finally, the last 10 years have proven that the state of the labor market has a huge impact on how much money travel nurses make. Of course, this is true for any profession. However, the impact of labor market conditions may be particularly acute when it comes to travel healthcare pay.

Between 2000 and 2007 it was quite common to see nursing bill rates of $70 per hour or higher. It was also more common to see “crisis rates”, which are rates that have been increased in an effort to get travelers on board quickly. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, rates began to decrease dramatically. Bill rates that were once $72 per hour were being slashed to $65 per hour or less. It was not uncommon to see bill rates as low as $55 per hour in Southern California!

You may be thinking that this is actually a reasonable reduction in rates. The difference between $72 and $65 is actually less than 10%. And after all, many professions take 10% hits during a recession.

The difference is that the vast majority of the bill rate reduction is passed on to travelers in the form of lower wages because agencies will only be able to absorb a fraction of the reductions. So a traveler that was making $40 per hour will now be making $33 per hour. That’s a decrease of nearly 20%.

With that in mind, the market has surged back in the last couple of years. As of March 2015, when this article is being written, the unemployment rate is 5.5% and the economy has experienced the largest 12 month growth spurt in private sector jobs in 20 years.

I had lunch with a staffing company executive and several members of his team who indicated that bill rates have surged above their pre-recession highs. It’s not uncommon to see rates in the mid $80’s and even some over $90 per hour. Of course, those are the highest rates and it’s fair to assume that the averages are somewhere in the mid $60’s and low $70’s depending on the location.

Also at the lunch were two highly experienced travelers, each with over 10 years of experience. They indicated that they’re seeing an increasing number of high-end pay quotes. This is all an indication that 2015 is on pace to be a great year for travel nursing salaries.

The important thing to remember is that bill rates will fluctuate with the economy. Therefore, it’s a good idea to consider the strength of the labor market whenever you’re considering a stint in travel healthcare.

Let’s take a look at several sample compensation packages, taking all of the variables above into consideration, to get an idea of how much traveling nurses make in a given year.

The Average Bill Rate for Travel Nurses According To American Mobile

In 2008, the Chief Nursing Officer for American Mobile, the largest healthcare staffing company in the nation, wrote an article discussing the cost to hospitals for a traditional travel nurse. A traditional travel nurse was defined as one who could start the job within 4 to 8 weeks and work a 13 week contract. Below is an image depicting the pay breakdown she offered.

Average Bill Rate for a Travel Nurse

We think it’s fair to cite this bill rate as the average given a normal job market. As you can see, American Mobile clearly states that the pay the nurse will receive is $35 per hour. The only thing that we would add is that a portion of that $35 will be taxable and a portion will be non-taxable for Meals & Incidental Expenditures. This is an incentive that permanent employees do not receive so it should be considered.

Assuming that you are able to work 46 weeks at 36 hours per week, you would make $57, 960 for the year. Again a certain percentage of that would be tax free. A company like American Mobile typically pays $250 per week for Meals & Incidentals which comes out to about $6.94 per hour and $11,500 for the year. As a result, you would avoid paying about $2,500 in taxes that you would have paid if this were a permanent job. So this would essentially be like having a permanent job that paid $60,460 per year.

Meanwhile, you’d be responsible for paying your mortgage or rent back at your tax home. If you are somehow avoiding these duplicate expenses, then you can add the value of housing to your pay calculation. However, we’re going to assume that you’re playing by the rules.

Additionally, we’ll assume that American Mobile is paying for travel related expenses as well as license and certification reimbursements despite the fact that they do not mention those costs in the breakdown they provided.

With all that in mind, we have our first solid indication as to the potential annual pay of a travel nurse:

 

  • $57,960

Now let’s assume that you averaged 48 hours per week with all else being equal. That would make the annual salary:

 

$77,280

 

A More Realistic Breakdown Of The Average Bill Rate

Agency profit margin

We think American Mobile’s breakdown is a little over optimistic when it comes to the travel nurse’s pay package, so we’re going to break this bill rate down with more detail. Let’s assume this is a standard travel nursing contract for 36 hours per week, 13 weeks and 468 total hours.

For starters, healthcare staffing companies typically aim for gross profit margins between 20% and 25%. It important to note that this is gross profit, not net profit. The agency must still cover all of it’s business costs, which includes paying its internal employees, out of the gross profit. Let’s assume a gross profit margin of 20%. With a $65 bill rate, that’s a gross profit of $13 per hour. That leaves us with $52 per hour.

Burdens and payroll costs

Now let’s assume a total cost of $4.95 per hour for the following items: Non-billable orientation hours, liability insurance, licensing and credentialing costs, FICA payroll costs and state disability, unemployment and workers comp insurance. To see an example of how we determine these costs, please review our Sample Breakdown of a Travel Nursing Pay Package.

Subtracting $4.95 from $52 per hour leaves us with $47.05 per hour.

Travel Expenses

Let’s assume the agency provides $500 for travel expenses. That comes to $1.07 per hour ($500 / 468 total hours). We’re now left with $45.98 per hour.

Health, Dental and Life Benefits

Let’s assume that the agency provides “free” health, dental and life benefits for the traveler. This is going to cost a minimum of $325 per month or $975 for the entire contract. That comes to $2.08 per hour. We’re now left with $43.90 per hour.

Travel Nurse Housing

Let’s stop here for a second to point out that American Mobile said they’d be paying the travel nurse $35 per hour for a contract with a $65 bill rate. We’re already at $43.90 per hour and we haven’t calculated the cost of housing yet. The difference between our $43.90 and their $35 is $8.90 per hour.

If this is a standard travel nursing contract, then it’s 3 months for 468 total hours which comes to 156 hours per month. At $8.90 per hour that’s a total of $1,388 per month for rent, furnishings, and utilities.

I suppose it’s possible that a company like American Mobile is able to negotiate these items at below market value. However, most agencies operate in the real world. In the real world, there are very few markets in which an agency would be able to secure all of these items at this price while providing the type of accommodations that travel nurses should rightly expect. Perhaps this is where all those travel nurse housing horror stories come from?

In any case, our experience indicates that unless you’re staying at an Extended Stay Hotel, housing will cost anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 per month depending on the location. Expect it to be more in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.

For our purposes here, we’re going to use $2,000 per month for a fully furnished, one bedroom apartment with utilities included. That comes to $12.82 per hour. Subtracting that from our remaining $43.90 leaves us with $31.08 per hour for the travel nurse’s hourly rate.

I believe that most travel nurses would agree that this is a much more realistic number for “average” pay based on the $65 bill rate. And remember, that doesn’t even include the 401K match  and tuition reimbursement that American Mobile spoke of above.

Again, if you are somehow avoiding the cost of duplicate expenses, then you can add part or all of the housing cost to your compensation calculations. But we’re going to assume that you’re playing by the rules.

We now have our second solid indication as to the potential annual pay of a travel nurse:

 

$51,468,48

 

Now let’s assume that the contracts were for 48 hours per week with all else being equal. That would make the annual salary:

 

$68,624.64

 

Bottom Level Bill Rates and Travel Nursing Salaries

Now that we’ve taken a look at what travel nurses could expect to make for working a full year at average bill rates, let’s take a look at the expectations for lower level bill rates. For this, we’re going to use a bill rate of $58 per hour. While this bill rate may sound really low, there are actually bill rates that are lower. Moreover, this bill rate can be quite common for contracts available through the largest Vendor Management Systems during difficult economic periods.

We’re going to use the same basic cost and profit structure in  this example, so we won’t rehash every last detail. For starters, a 20% gross profit margin for the agency would be $11.60 per hour. That leaves $46.40 per hour.

The burden, payroll, travel and medical expenses come to $8.10 per hour. That leaves $38.30 per hour.

The housing is $12.82 per hour. That leaves $25.48 per hour for the actual pay rate.

Again, if you are somehow avoiding the cost of duplicate expenses on your tax home, then you can add part or all of the housing cost to your compensation calculations. But we’re going to assume that you’re playing by the rules.

We now have our third solid indication as to the potential annual pay of a travel nurse:

 

$42,194.48

 

Now let’s assume that the contracts are for 48 hours per week with all else being equal. That would make the annual salary:

 

$56,259.84

 

High Level Bill Rates and Travel Nursing Salaries

Finally, let’s take a look at what we might expect if you were to work a full year’s worth of contracts with higher end bill rates. For this example, we’re going to use a bill rate of $82 per hour. This is definitely on the higher end, but it’s also not the highest bill rate out there.

If the agency takes a 20% gross profit margin, then it will leave us with $65.60 per hour. All the other costs and housing add up to $20.92 per hour. That leaves us with $44.68 per hour.

Again, if you are somehow avoiding the cost of duplicate expenses, then you can add part or all of the housing cost to your compensation calculations. But we’re going to assume that you’re playing by the rules.

We now have our fourth solid indication as to the potential annual pay of a travel nurse:

 

$73,990.08

 

Now let’s assume that the contracts are for 48 hours per week with all else being equal. That would make the annual salary:

 

$98,653.44

 

The Housing Wild Card

As you can see, housing costs and duplicate expenses are a bit of a wild card when it comes to determining how much travel nurses make. There are several factors to consider that we haven’t touched on in detail.

First, many travelers take the housing stipend instead of taking company provided housing. These travelers typically secure housing for less than the cost of what the agency provides and pocket the difference. For example, the agency might provide $2000 per month for a housing stipend, but you secure housing for $900 per month. In this case, you would be able to add the difference to your annual compensation calculations.

Second, many travelers incur minimal duplicate expenses. For example, they might rent a room back at their tax-home for a fraction of what a house or apartment might cost. By reducing your duplicate expenses in this fashion, you are in essence increasing your annual pay because the cost of the housing that you’re receiving from the agency is much higher than what you’re paying for back at home. For example, if you’re paying $400 per month for a room back at home but you’re living in a posh 1 bedroom apartment while on assignment, then it’s reasonable to add a portion of the cost of your agency housing to your annual income calculations.

Third, if you are traveling without a tax home as an “itinerant worker”, then it’s fair to include the value of housing in your compensation calculations. In this case, it’s important to remember that you are technically required to pay taxes on 100% of the compensation you receive from the company. That includes travel stipends and the cost of company provided housing.

Moreover, it should technically be difficult to find an agency that is willing to pay you a fully taxable rate. This is because they will run the risk of violating the IRS’s “wage recharacterization” rules. You can read more about that here. Additionally, most companies will want you to sign a document attesting that you have a tax home and qualify to receive the tax-free stipends they provide. This allows the agency to verify with the IRS that the agency made a reasonable effort to determine your eligibility to receive tax-free money.

Despite all that we’ve covered on this topic, there is still more to consider. For a great breakdown of these issues and more, visit TravelTax.com’s FAQs. In particular, review the questions on, “Traveler Example Meeting the 2/3 Requirement”.

The main point here is that there is a lot to consider when determining how much of the housing stipend should be added when calculating a travel nurse’s income. With all that in mind, it’s fair to assume that you could potentially add anywhere from $3,000 to $21,000 per year to the income figures we outlined above.

How Much Travel Nurses Make: Parting Shots

As you can see, determining the earning potential for travel nurses is quite a bit more complicated than many websites make it out to be. However, understanding the nuances helps us make more accurate estimates.

In 2007 I worked with a Med/Surg nurse from Ohio who was a first time traveler. She was doing it because she needed the money. At the time, the highest bill rate I had available was in Hollister, California at $73 per hour. We were able to find a relatively inexpensive housing option for $1,800 per month.

She left her permanent job and made her way to California. After 6 weeks on contract, she had already determined that she was not making enough money. While she was making exactly as much as she anticipated, she hadn’t factored all the costs of maintaining her tax home. Luckily, she was able to get her old job back and returned home after one contract.

That said, for every one of these stories, there may be at least two others where travelers are making as much as they had hoped or more. The important thing to remember is that if you’re going to engage in travel nursing for the money, then be sure to factor in all the costs.

As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences with this issue. Please share them in the comments section below along with any questions, comments or details we missed!

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