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Nation & World

Demand For Temporary Nurses Surges During Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More people picked up side hustles this year to shore up their family's income during the pandemic. Upwork, a site that pairs freelancers with gigs, says its workforce increased 24% this summer. This is especially true in nursing. Nurses are always in short supply, but COVID-19 has made demand for temporary nurses surge, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Renee Patel commutes all over western Massachusetts to her various jobs.

RENEE PATEL: Greenfield, Westfield I was in today. And tomorrow I'm going to be in Holyoke.

NOGUCHI: Demand for Patel's services as a licensed practical nurse is almost limitless. Patel quit her previous job in May to freelance full time. Often she works 60 hours a week but could work far more if she wanted.

PATEL: The facilities I've been to - not only people were quitting. You know, people started getting sick with the COVID.

NOGUCHI: So she travels from one viral hot zone to another.

PATEL: I've worked around patients that have been actively coughing, and they're having trouble breathing. I had to send a couple to the hospital one time.

NOGUCHI: Patel has not gotten ill. She wraps herself in protective gear and gets tested twice a week. When I reach her, she's waiting to shower before greeting her three kids.

PATEL: So I'm actually sitting in the driveway in the car.

NOGUCHI: The work, she says, is emotionally draining, and it's very risky. Patel does not have health insurance. Like most gig workers, she must pay for those benefits. She decided it was too pricy. On the other hand, she feels she's helping people and has control over her schedule. And most strikingly, because so many places need nurses, she's more than doubled her hourly pay.

PATEL: I went from 27 to 65.

NOGUCHI: The pandemic supercharged the country's existing shortage of nurses. The virus sidelines many nurses who are too vulnerable to work or had to care for kids at home. But that acute shortage meant those still able to work have been able to write their own ticket. Jill Eliassen is vice president of Travel Nurse Across America, which places nurses in temporary assignments. She says that's true for all health care staff.

JILL ELIASSEN: There's just as big of a shortage there as there is with the nurses - your respiratory therapist, your medical technologist, just everyone who staff the hospital. It's a very common trend.

NOGUCHI: It's a trend that predates the pandemic. David Coppins is CEO of IntelyCare, which operates like an Uber for nurses in long-term care.

DAVID COPPINS: We have grown substantially - over 7,000% in the last three years. And that doesn't include anything to do with COVID.

NOGUCHI: Coppins says about a quarter of available nurses haven't been able to work, but many new ones joined his workforce, motivated by a sense of mission and increased pay. This year IntelyCare's pool of gig nurses grew by 3,000.

COPPINS: In a time of crisis, the gig model worked exactly as it should have.

NOGUCHI: Coppins says regular testing has kept infection rates low. Of the 15,000 nurses in its network, 73 are currently infected. Nurse Lisa Tatarelli says loss of income scares her more than the disease itself. She and her boyfriend caught the virus in October and couldn't work. That spurred Tatarelli, who is 32, to add shifts on top of her full-time job.

LISA TATARELLI: There was always the lingering fear that somebody in my life is going to get sick and be out of work, and it definitely motivated me to pick up kind of as much work as humanly possible just in case.

NOGUCHI: She even argues that recovering from COVID-19 makes her better suited for dangerous gigs.

TATARELLI: I called it putting my antibodies to good use. I'll go in your COVID unit. That's fine.

NOGUCHI: And she's happy long-term care residents and staff are among those receiving the first doses of vaccine.

TATARELLI: I will happily be one of the first in line to get it.

NOGUCHI: Vaccination could finally calm things down for Oakhill Health Care in Middleborough, Mass. Its executive director Tom Daley says gig nurses make up more than half its staff of 110, and it's super-expensive.

COPPINS: Can it be sustainable forever? No, absolutely not.

NOGUCHI: He says he hopes the vaccine will bring more nurses back to work, reducing the rates he must pay them.

COPPINS: Hopefully it'll reduce the anxiety and the fear of working in long-term care and health care.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROOKED COLOURS SONG, "NEVER DANCE ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.