From Burned-Out Staff Nurse to Six-Figure Travel Nurse, Sarah's Story
In a recent episode of the Nurse Alice show, Nurse Alice spoke with Sarah Gaines, MSN, RNC-OB, whom you might know better on social media as the Six Figure Travel Nurse.
Through her platform and business, Sarah coaches RNs making the transition into travel nursing and provides them with tips and training to maximize their earnings, as well as educates new travel nurses with all the practical information they need to succeed, from taxes to supplies to take with them on assignment.
Here’s what Nurse Alice chatted with Sarah about.
Listen to Sarah Gaines on the Ask Nurse Alice Podcast - on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player.
Filling in the Gaps
Nurse Alice and Sarah kicked off their chat by dispelling the myth that travel nursing only started because of the pandemic.
“People have the misconception that travel nursing started during the pandemic,” Sarah noted. “But I've actually been traveling for several years and it is something that has changed my life.”
She described how she got her start as a travel nurse by becoming frustrated in the environment she was working in as a staff labor and delivery nurse for around three years: ”We were very, very short staffed all the time,” she said. “We had ridiculously high nurse patient ratios, a very chaotic, busy and hostile work environment and I'd had mandatory overtime so I was just not feeling it. I was not happy for quite a while.”
When she first heard about travel nursing, however, she admitted that she thought it was something too good to be true.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean nurses are making twice as much pay work in the same amount of hours? I don't believe it!,’” she laughed. “It just sounded like a scam to me.”
For Sarah, however, what finally changed things for her was her father being diagnosed with cancer. She became her father’s hospice nurse, caring for him for several months until he passed away.
The day after her father’s death, the nurse manager called her, asking her to come to work. Sarah pleaded for some time off--and was denied. With her father’s funeral on a Sunday and her shift scheduled for Monday, Sarah begged the manager if she could move her shifts until later in the week, but the manager refused.
“I went to my dad's funeral on Sunday and arrived at work on Monday morning,” she described. “And to be honest with you, I think that I had convinced myself that everything was going to be okay. I pulled it together.”
She pulled it together, that is, until her patient delivered a beautiful baby boy and called her own father to share the news about his first grandchild being born.
“I lost it,” Sarah said. I'm not married. I don't have any kids yet. So of course the first thing that went through my head was my dad and how we're never going to have that moment together.”
Before she knew, she was on the floor in the fetal position just completely broken down. As her coworkers surrounded her and hugged, trying to tell her how sorry they were and they would be ok, the nurse manager walked up to her, placed her hand on Sarah’s shoulder.
“She said, ‘Sarah, you're making a scene,” Sarah remembers. “I need you to get up. You need to clean up this patient. Because there's another patient waiting in triage.”
“I Knew I Was Done”
It was in that moment that Sarah said she knew she was done.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I just looked at her...I knew I was done. I knew I wanted to quit. I knew I had to get out of that situation.”
So, after cleaning her patient up, Sarah headed to lunch, where she scrolled her emails, hoping to see something from the many different job applications she had put out. She said she remembers thinking “someone just email me.”
Her inbox turned up fruitless, however, Sarah was startled when her phone rang. It was a travel nurse recruiter. The recruiter explained to Sarah how she could offer her a job in Dallas--near her mother--for twice the amount of money and the same amount of hours she was currently making.
“I was like, ‘That sounds like a scam,’” Sarah said. “So I said no, I hung up on the recruiter.”
After hanging up on the recruiter, Sarah went back to her inbox and found something shocking: an email her dad had forwarded before he passed away. It was a job posting for a travel nurse. But it wasn’t just any travel nurse job--it was the same one that the recruiter had just called her about.
Sarah immediately called the nurse recruiter back, completed her interview in the supply room later that day, and by the end of her shift, had both signed her contract for the new job and given her notice to the nurse manager.
A Whole New World
Despite the horrible way she was treated by the nurse manager, Sarah shared with Nurse Alice that it was the push she needed to get into travel nursing. Her first assignment was set with a crisis rate and Gaines said it was an amazing experience. She ended up staying at the contract for the rest of the year, becoming great friends with some of the staff nurses and even recently attending one of their retirement parties.
Although she had a great experience, Sarah admitted that she took that first assignment thinking it would just be a temporary thing before she applied for a new staff job. However, it was when she booked herself a one-way ticket to Costa Rica in between assignments when she realized:
“Staff nursing isn't gonna give me that,” she laughed. “I was like, ‘okay, I guess I got to do this for real.’”
All in all Sarah said that she has now completed about 20 contracts and of those, really only had a bad experience with two of them. One was due to toxic people in the workplace, while the other dealt more with unsafe situations. She also shared that she hasn’t worked for less than $100/hour in years, pointing out just how lucrative travel nursing really can be.
Tips for New Travel Nurses
Next, Sarah shared some valuable tips for new travel nurses or those curious on making the switch:
- Work with multiple companies and compare offers from recruiters. This is the #1 tip Gaines shared and she said it will help “a ton” with new travelers. One recruiter and agency can’t work with all the facilities in an area, so it’s crucial to speak with multiple companies and get offers from all of them so you can compare and negotiate.
- Aim for a minimum of two years experience before applying.
- However, keep in mind that specialities matter more than straight time on the floor. In Gaines’ case, for instance, she had only three years of experience, but it was at a highly specialized and acute hospital, so she was more than well-equipped to handle the patient load at the smaller hospital she was assigned to.
- Focus on getting the job with speciality certification. Get the job, then you’re in a place to negotiate, said Gaines.
- Ask the recruiter to send you the full pay breakdown. Travel nurses are paid in two parts: 1) a taxed hourly rate and 2) tax-free stipends for things like housing and food. Your actual paycheck may not look like what you were told because the rate they tell you will include both parts.
- Calculate your own pay. “Don't rely on your recruiter to calculate your pay because you're gonna end up bamboozled,” Gaines said.
- Lower your hourly rate and max out your tax free stipends to make the most money. It might sound backwards, but Gaines explained that doing that actually puts more money in your pocket that won’t be taxed. It's more beneficial for us to have more of our pay be tax free stipends,” she said. “So typically, it's like 30% of our pay is hourly and 70% is actually tax free, which is what makes travel nursing so lucrative.”
- Choose the companies that offer the most nurse support, like a 24/7 nurse hotline. Gaines also touched on the importance of knowing who to turn to for support as a travel nurse. Because you’re a contractor for the travel nursing agency, as a travel nurse, you can’t rely on the hospital for things like HR or work concerns--you have to know who to talk to at your agency. She suggested asking some of the following questions:
- How will I get support as a travel nurse? If there is an emergency?
- Do you guys have a nurse advocate or a nurse liaison that's going to advocate for me?
- Do you guys have an emergency hotline? What if I work night shift, and it's 2 AM and something crazy happens?
- How am I going to be able to get a hold of you when you're asleep?
Paving the Way Forward
Nurse Alice and Sarah ended their conversation discussing how the future of travel nursing will most likely only continue to become more competitive, as interest increases. That means that new travel nurses breaking into the industry will have to be strategic about landing contracts with special skills and certifications.
In addition to moving towards more specialty positions, Sarah also commented that she hopes more awareness about travel nursing will also help to resolve some of the challenges that staff nurses are facing as well.
“I hope that those conversations keep happening because I think all nurses should get the pay that they deserve and the freedom that they deserve,” she said. “I think hospitals are going to be forced to treat us better and travel nursing is raising the standard for staff nurses. That’s my hope.”
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