- Hunter Marshall is an ICU nurse in New Mexico who’s spent the pandemic travel-nursing.
- Marshall made $90,000 in 28 weeks as a travel nurse, but still wants to quit due to burnout.
- This is Marshall’s story, as told to writer Fiona Lowenstein.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Hunter Marshall, an ICU nurse in New Mexico who has spent the pandemic travel-nursing. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When the pandemic started, I was in a full-time staff position at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. I’d just been accepted into the family nurse practitioner program at UNM, and I was anticipating staying at my job— either part-time or in an as-needed position.
We were the COVID-19 unit, and there was frustration amongst staff. We were told we didn’t qualify for hazard pay, and that they wouldn’t allow non-COVID assignments for pregnant staff and staff over 60. I ended up doing an interview about working conditions in the Albuquerque Journal and was given a letter by the administration essentially saying: “If you talk to the media again, you will be disciplined.”
I wanted to stay. I liked the job. I liked the people I worked with. But if I’m going to be treated like crap, I’m not also going to be paid like crap — especially at a point when I would be incurring more costs for school.
I ended up taking a travel assignment in Wrangell, Alaska, over the summer
In 13 weeks, I made what I would have made in six months at my old job.
In New Mexico, I was making $32.34 an hour. In Alaska, I made $65 an hour and $100 an hour for overtime — plus, they provided free housing and paid for my flights. I still had to pay my $595 monthly rent in New Mexico, but I didn’t need a car because Wrangell is tiny. During my 13 weeks in Alaska, I made a total of $32,928.
When I flew up there, I was required to quarantine, and I was paid for it. We were also paid when we had exposures at my staff job, but it came out of our sick time and our vacation time. Once those ran out, we weren’t paid at all. It felt good to feel respected and compensated.
In late 2020 and early 2021, I did seven weeks in San Diego and made $17,804.34, working 36 hours per week. During that same time frame a year later, I went to Anchorage, Alaska, and made $35,834.37 over eight 36-hour weeks. My travel expenses to and from San Diego and Anchorage were covered, but I decided to rent a car in Anchorage for $2,986.66. I didn’t really need one, but it was an expense I could afford that let me sightsee and visit friends.
During my winter trips, I got a subletter in New Mexico for about half the time I was away. I ended up paying for about half of my $650 monthly rent. My total housing and rental car added up to $9,229.26.
All combined, I made $86,566.71 over 28 weeks of travel nursing
I have much less financial stress. Between the money and the ability to negotiate the terms of your employment, it’s no surprise that so many people are doing this. The equivalent of working at UNM for the same amount of hours would have been $32,598.72 before taxes. I would’ve been working while at school, as well as over school breaks. I would’ve had to take out loans.
Unfortunately, with travel nursing, the collective knowledge that a unit shares is gone. Instead, there’s a disjointed community. Nursing is a team sport, and if you’re working with people who you’re unfamiliar with, it’s harder. No longer having those relationships means you’re very alone at the end of the day, in a way that leads to more burnout.
It’s also harder to build skill sets. When I was a staff nurse, I was able to run the dialysis machine and take care of ECMO patients. I couldn’t do these things as a travel nurse, because hospitals have no way to know that the nurse they hired is going to be competent.
The staff nurses are the only ones trained to do that stuff, so they end up doing harder work than the travel nurses making more than them. That disparity adds to resentment, but it’s more geared toward the hospital administration than other nurses. Even before COVID-19, nurses didn’t feel valued.
Travel pay is one of the things that’s keeping people in healthcare
I have this period from when I graduate to when I’m licensed as a nurse practitioner, and I was told I could come back to UNM as a contract-based staffer, but I don’t think I’m going to.
This last contract showed me that the work has taken a toll. It used to feel like we were coping, but now it feels like we’re all dissociating. So, I think during that time, I’m just going to do something entirely unrelated to healthcare, like work as a server — to remember what it is to be in an environment where people aren’t dying and grieving all the time. The money’s not worth it.
I don’t think I’ll ever work in a hospital again, but I would be happy to work at Planned Parenthood or a school-based clinic. Something lighter, where when I go home I’m not wondering about the three kids of that couple who died from COVID-19.
I’m willing to take a pay cut now, because I’m burned out.