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New York is offering nurses up to $7K a week. Michigan is offering way less.

Doctor or nurse sitting down with hands clasped
Jonathan Borba

Eventually, the money was just too good to pass up.

“When you're overworked and understaffed, you’re going to go somewhere where they're going to be more appreciative of you,” says a nurse who spent years at Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace, before leaving to a two month, $4,000 per week contract at a New York hospital two weeks ago. At Sinai-Grace, she was making $850 a week after taxes, she says.

Scroll through staffing agency apps, and there are tons of these postings for high-paying healthcare workers jobs out east:

New York-Presbyterian is offering $4,500 a week for a medical-surgical nurse with about one year of experience. (Work more than 36 hours, get an hourly bonus “Spreadin’ the wealth! <3” the ad on the staffing agency app reads. Work more than 40 hours, and you’ll make overtime, “AND you’ll receive an additional 12 hours worth of Extra Time pay. Pretty sweet, right?”)

New York University Winthrop is offering $5,500 a week. University of Massachusetts Memorial is offering $4,600 a week for registered nurses to care for critically ill COVID patients (that includes tax-free stipends for housing and food.) And at least one New York staffing agency is offering ICU nurses with at least a year of experience $7,038 per week, if they're willing to go up to 60 hours.  

Pushed to the breaking point

The nurse from Sinai-Grace in Detroit agreed to take the travel gig a couple weeks ago, when the surge of COVID-19 cases was just starting to hit her city. (We’re not naming her, because she may want to return to the Detroit area for work in the future, she says.) Her work at the Detroit hospital had always been daunting and draining: there was never enough staff, years of tensions with management, and a constant influx of gunshot and stabbing wounds. But she had a tight knit team, and the work felt worthy.

Hospitals in states like New York and Massachusetts are offering thousands more per week than Michigan hospitals - including the new field hospitals being set up in the Metro Detroit area.

“Nurses who've been nurses for 20 years, don't see half the stuff that we do [at DMC]," she says. “We’re cracking people's chests open and pulling people out of cars and, you know, having to pick up babies who you have to do CPR on, and running through the hallways.”

And then the pandemic hit. All the pre-existing problems and shortages were suddenly on steroids. The PPE shortage wasn’t the hospital's fault, the Sinai-Grace nurse says. But at the time, she thought New York really needed the help. “I felt like I was going to make a difference in New York, not realizing how bad it was going to get in Detroit at all.”

Now she talks regularly with friends and coworkers still at Sinai-Grace, who tell her just how bad things have gotten: earlier this week, ER nurses on the nightshift held a sit-in, protesting what they say are dangerously low levels of staffing amidst a flood of coronavirus patients.

While a typical ER nurse may have four to five patients, ER nurses at Sinai-Grace say they’ve had shifts where just two nurses are caring for 26 patients, 10 of whom are on ventilators. Healthcare workers say some patients are stuck waiting in the ER for up to five days, until space opens up on other floors.

The nurse who left for New York listens, and feels torn. “I've definitely questioned my decision to be out here, that's for sure. Do I regret being out here? Absolutely not. But in a way, do I wish I was back home? Absolutely. So, you know, you're kind of torn in between just, you know, just seeing what they're going through and not being able to support them, but kind of lending your support or emotional support.”

Better experience in New York than Detroit

As devastated and overwhelmed as some hospitals in New York have been, this nurse says she’s been lucky so far. They’re busy, but at least they’ve got more staff.

“I'm at a facility in New York right now where none of the problems that are going on at Grace, are implemented or are existent,” she says. “You have a one-to-four [nurse to patient] ratio. You have your ancillary staff, you have support staff, you have management staff, you have visible people there. There have been more staff members than there have been patients. And that speaks volumes. They don't send people home [if they’re overstaffed.] And when they feel like they have been short, they call people in.”

But mostly, she says, she feels supported.

“It feels so different. I talk to my coworkers and colleagues all the time, and just hearing their stories and sharing firsthand experiences of what they’re going through, and how mentally and emotionally exhausted they are, or just how sad they’re becoming. It’s truly heartbreaking.”

Michigan hospitals are getting outbid  even by the TCF field hospital

Credit Paulette Parker
Hundreds of healthcare workers at Henry Ford Health System have tested positive for COVID. The company is trying to recruit more workers, but the ads we saw for nursing jobs there didn't specify how much they were paying.

Michigan is also in desperate need of more nurses and other healthcare workers to handle the surge of coronavirus patients filling Detroit-area hospitals. Thousands of healthcare workers have already tested positive for COVID-19. The state has eased licensing restrictions, making it possible for hospitals to hire someone who’s licensed in a state other than Michigan.

But according to the job posts one Henry Ford Health System nurse is seeing, Michigan hospitals are offering less than half what some in New York and Massachusetts are paying. For COVID nurses with at least one year of experience, Sinai-Grace Hospital is offering $1,591 weekly, according to one online job post. McLaren Oakland is offering $1,489. Henry Ford’s ad just says “premium rates available.”

And the two field hospitals opening in the Detroit-area seem to be outbidding the local healthcare systems. Job postings for the “Emergency COVID Facility” offer $2,432 to $3,120 weekly - about half what a nurse with the same qualifications could make in New York. (The pay is higher for other jobs, though: a nurse case manager job is advertised at closer to $4,700.) “HELP at the COBO CENTER! WE NEED YOU!” one ad reads.

Credit Paulette Parker
Workers setting up a field hospital at the TCF convention center in Detroit. FEMA estimates hundreds of healthcare workers will be needed to staff it.

“That’s a slap in the face,” the Henry Ford nurse says. “When you’re offering $2,000 a week...I don’t know how they’re going to staff that emergency center, honestly. I really don’t.”

The nurse, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her current job, says she’s currently weighing out-of-state offers through six different travel nursing agencies. “It was overwhelming. I had 200 offers from the one company,” she says

"Going into the gauntlet"

It’s not that she doesn’t like her current hospital — she does. “It’s a great learning environment.” But these days, she has heart palpitations every time she pulls into work. “Because you know you’re going into the gauntlet. And you never know if today is going to be your day [to get sick.]”

More than 700 Henry Ford Health System staffers have already gotten sick — although most have only mild symptoms, according to a spokesperson. Others have been hospitalized.

“We have nurses taking care of nurses at Henry Ford… It’s gut wrenching when you’re caring for your own,” she says.

lisa ewald
Credit Courtesy of the Ewald family
Lisa Ewald, a nurse at Henry Ford Health System, died last week in her home after testing positive for COVID-19. "She was our matriarch," a coworker says.

And then last week, the worst happened: a nurse she looked up to, Lisa Ewald, died after testing positive for COVID-19. “She was our matriarch,” this nurse says.

Meanwhile, she’s caring for more and more critically ill patients, many of whom need her full attention simultaneously. “This patient, all he said for my 12-hour shift was ‘Help me. Help me. Help me...’"

He was middle-aged and diabetic, she says, but also an active golfer and tennis player, who had suddenly crashed and was now all alone in the hospital.

This nurse is hoping the rumors she’s hearing about Henry Ford Health System soon offering hazard pay or bonuses are true. (Henry Ford didn’t immediately respond to our questions about this.) But in terms of staffing, it doesn’t feel like help is coming, she says.

“If I’m gonna be on the frontlines of COVID, I might as well get travel pay...it’ll pay off some loans, honestly. That’s where the money would go: my student loans.”

“Uprooting our lives”

Of course, not every nurse can leave their homes, families, and jobs overnight. Travel nursing has always been a high-paying, but grueling line of work. And these contracts being offered in other states are just for the next two to three months.

But some nurses may feel they don’t have another choice — especially if they’re facing the prospect of a mandatory reassignment at their current job. Last week, the Michigan Nurses Association said Ascension was reassigning nursesto overwhelmed hospitals in the Detroit area, without any guarantees about what kinds of personal protective equipment would be available to them.

"I’ve had nurses, several nurses, threaten to quit if we’re mandated into other hospitals," MNA president Jamie Brown said last week.

She’s also a critical care nurse at Ascension Borgess in Kalamazoo. "And if we’re going over there for $2 more an hour, that’s not worth uprooting our lives and leaving our families. So it’s uncertainty, anxiety about having to quit, and maybe get a travel contract. It’s such a hardship for everybody right now."

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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