June 22, 2022

Travel Nurses Felt Stranded on American Samoa After Contract Canceled Early

Travel Nurses Felt Stranded on American Samoa After Contract Canceled Early

Susan Wipson, an ER and dialysis nurse who has been working as a travel nurse since 2016, was looking forward to her first assignment outside of the domestic U.S. 

Wipson joined a team of around 25 medical professionals, including nurses, RTs, doctors, a biomedical technician, and a lab technician, to travel to American Samoa in April for a FEMA crisis contract that was set to end on July 2nd. “The idea of working in another country (US territory) was exciting,” Wilson tells Nurse.org. “I felt comfort in knowing that other RNs would be working there with me and I would not be alone in a foreign country. Learning that this was a FEMA-arranged contract, it seemed safe to go to another country,” she adds. 

Despite her initial excitement, Wilson’s experience ended up being far different than she expected—when she, along with many other travelers on the assignment—was stuck on the island for nearly a month when their contract ended unexpectedly early. 

What Happened in Samoa

According to Wipson, it wasn’t long after her assignment officially began in early April that rumors began to swirl that the contract was going to be ended early. 

She and the other travelers became very concerned when a local Samoan newspaper published an article on May 10th stating that the contract was being canceled and perhaps even more worrisome, that they anticipated difficulty for the travelers to find flights home. 

Wipson tells Nurse.org that even after that article was published, NuWest travel nursing agency did not notify her that the contract was ending early. On May 12, Wipson says she emailed her recruiter with NuWest to inform them of the circulating rumors. She states she did not receive a reply. But the very next day, NuWest sent an email to some of the people on the contract that said, in fact, the contract was ending early. According to Wipson, the email stated:

"The contract will be cut effective May 28th. All travelers will be responsible for purchasing their own flight home. You can and should utilize your $2,000 end-of-assignment relocation reimbursement. From what we have seen, there are flights leaving every Thursday in June starting on 6/2.”

The primary concern for Wipson was that NuWest informed the group that their contract was ending on Friday, May 13th, around 6 PM local time—which meant the group was left without any way to get in touch with the company over the weekend. And further complicating matters was that the local Samoan paper published another article stating that flights out of the island were already booking up. 

Wipson tells Nurse.org that there was a lot of concern about flight availability, especially when COVID had already impacted flights out of the island previously. 

What Happened Next

Wipson and another RN began reaching out to various media, including CNN, and even the White House, to try to get help. 

“We were all having panic moments about being stranded in another country,” she says. 

Eventually, she also penned a Facebook post to a travel nursing group describing her version of the situation. She put the post directly to a job posting for the contract.

Source: Susan Fleck/Facebook 

Within 30 minutes of her post going up, WIpson says that NuWest sent out more emails and updates and instituted daily Zoom “town halls.” NuWest also created a specific email address for the travel nurses to send complaints and concerns.

Wipson’s original flight home (booked when the contract was supposed to go through July 2) was for June 30th. She and two other travelers were renting a house, where she says they felt very safe but were also concerned about the expense of staying there without a contract. With the contract ending on May 28th, they would have been forced to live for over one full month on American Samoa island without any income, says Wipson. 

“[We were] VERY afraid that COVID numbers would increase and the island would again close its borders, then we would be stuck there indefinitely,” she says. “The island was closed to airplanes for 2 years! I took care of patients who were stranded in Washington & unable to return home for 2 years.” 

NuWest's Statement

NuWest also sent Nurse.org the following statement on May 20th: 

“NuWest travelers were activated to American Samoa in April out of an abundance of caution by the government of A.S.. Covid had finally reached the island after a remarkable two years without cases. This deployment marked the first time A.S. has used contract healthcare workers, so we partnered with the facility, LBJ Hospital, to create the infrastructure, logistics, and procedures in real-time. Our experienced travelers were able to deploy quickly and help train the LBJ staff with what they’ve learned since March 2020.

Fortunately, the community contained the virus and census remained low, so LBJ projected ending the contract early.  Before an end date was set, word began to circulate among staff and travelers that it was coming, which created uncertainty. While LBJ and NuWest were working to firm up plans and schedule transportation, some travelers grew anxious. Before a clear path forward could be communicated, concerns surfaced in nursing communities on social media. The support from other nurses that came from this is a tribute to their compassion and camaraderie. We hope the updates we’ve provided confirming their safe and timely return to the continental U.S. have helped ease those concerns. Our commitment is to make sure we communicate upcoming changes early and often to our teams and travelers while we work out logistics. We’re thankful for the great feedback provided by our travelers on the Island as we continue to improve our processes.

We have secured a charter flight to Hawaii and on to the mainland for all travelers. Travelers will be paid up until that date per their original agreement, and NuWest is covering travel expenses. We have a travel liaison to help each individual with their return arrangements, including flights, ground transportation, and covid testing protocols. NuWestees on A.S. receive daily updates and have been able to attend daily Town Halls if they have questions. Our recruiters are working to redeploy them to new roles in other locations.

Our partnership with LBJ and the Government of American Samoa has been strong throughout this deployment, and we’re grateful to the community that welcomed our travelers. They continue to express strong gratitude for the service of our healthcare professionals. It takes a unique level of grit and cultural competency to work a travel assignment in extremely remote locations with different social environments. We appreciate each of these travelers who stepped up to the challenge as we address the healthcare needs across America.”---Mona Veiseh, CEO of NuWest Healthcare

NuWest also told Nurse.org that their company would be covering the charter flight from American Samoa to Hawaii. From there to the mainland, travelers had the option of NuWest booking the flights for them, or booking themselves and being reimbursed.

Where It Stands Now

Fortunately, Wipson says that she and the other travelers are all now safely home. “Everyone was placed on a Medicare managed flight on May 30th at 11:30 PM from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Honolulu, HI,” she explains. From there, the travelers could book and pay for their own flights home, then submit the expenses for reimbursement. NuWest also offered to book their flights home, but Wipson notes that option meant the traveler would not have a choice over times or number of layovers. So many of them chose to book their own flights and submit for reimbursement. 

“Some people caught connecting flights that same day. Others decided to take 1-6 days in Hawaii and relax. It was a very stressful assignment from day one with the strict quarantine, language barrier, learning a new culture, amount of hours worked, incorrect information being given to us and the uncertainty of when & how we were going home. No one received confirmation that our names were on the Medicare flight roster for May 30th,” she adds. 

According to Wipson, the travelers were also told they could not stay in American Samoa and work the contract that was offered to them directly from LBJ Medical Center. "If Medicare hadn't allowed us on the flight we would have been stranded for 30 days post contract termination," says Wipson.

While she is glad the situation worked out, Wipson says she most likely will not be taking a contract in a similar vein anytime soon. “If I do work for NuWest in the future, it will be a job in the continental United States where I can drive home,” she notes. 

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