GULFPORT, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – Jessica Moore has become accustomed to the constant ping of her email inbox as recruiters offer to double her salary the same way she’s grown used to crying spells behind bathroom stall doors.
It’s part of a hospital nurse’s daily rhythm.
Moore, a nurse and manager at Singing River’s hospital in Gulfport, has chosen to stay put in her role. Mississippi is her home, she says. And so is Singing River.
But every day, the promise of more flexibility and more money is just an email or phone call away. Nursing staffing agencies, often called travel nurse companies, are constantly recruiting Mississippi nurses away from their bedside hospital jobs with offers of dramatic wage increases and $10,000 bonuses.
An increasing number of Mississippi’s nurses are taking these offers for the temporary gigs, as Mississippi hospitals struggle to fund meaningful pay raises for full-time staff. Moore has seen dozens of her coworkers and friends make the switch since the pandemic began.
“I’ve been through Katrina, I’ve been through storms, recessions, and you’ll have one or two nurses who leave for traveling jobs,” Moore said. “But with this pandemic, they’re leaving in droves.”
Hospital leaders aren’t just calling the current predicament a nurses shortage; they’re calling it an exodus.
It’s an untenable cycle that’s showing no signs of slowing. Singing River has lost a third of its nurses — about 290 — since March 2020.
In a few days, 900 nurses the state funded to help during the worst of the delta wave of the COVID-19 pandemic are leaving dozens of hospitals across the state. Their contracts end Oct. 31.
Without the extra nurses on hand, Moore will once again stretch her staff to its limits to fill intensive care unit shifts. The nurse-to-patient ratio could creep back up 1:8 — double what it should be.
Worse, Moore said, the added stress could continue to push more hospital nurses out the door.
Of Mississippi’s 114 hospital and speciality facilities, just 30 run as for-profit businesses, according to the Mississippi Hospital Association. That means the bulk of Mississippi’s hospitals are community owned or nonprofits.
By design, those hospitals don’t have large business margins. It leaves them without the ability to dole out the massive across-the-board raises to nurses, their largest employee group, needed to stay competitive in the market.
As a result, they rely on a patchwork of positions filled by travel companies — as they can afford them — to keep hospital beds open.
A Clarksdale hospital using staffing agency Adex, for example, is seeking an ICU nurse to start in as little as two weeks. The contract covers 13 weeks, 48 hours per week. The weekly salary, the post says, is about $4,800.
Meanwhile, Mississippi’s average hospital nurse is taking home $29 an hour, according to the state employment security office. That’s just under $1,400 for a 48-hour work week.
The Adex posting is not special. Dozens are just like it. Usually, the staffing companies also offer cash incentives for nurses who recruit others to join them.
Vivian, an online job board for health care work, has seen a massive uptick in the demand for nurses in Mississippi over the last couple months, a spokesman said. By mid-October, Vivian’s website had more than 350 postings seeking nurses to fill in at hospitals across the state.
Moore can’t blame nurses for leaving to better their finances. It has crossed her mind, too.
It’s a thought that steals a moment during a seven-day work week or sneaks in the minutes before catching a few hours of sleep ahead of back-to-back 12-hour shifts. When time with her two boys is little and the time she spends with her husband — also a nurse — nears nonexistent, it lingers.
But she can’t do it. She said the current cycle is ruining the hospital system, making it so nurses aren’t working together like the family she’s used to.
“It’s extremely difficult for a loyal nurse who stayed here to protect and save their community, that has roots here, and can’t travel, to work beside a contracted nurse that makes a lot more money than them,” said Singing River’s CEO Lee Bond.