Despite fluctuating pandemic pay, stress and fear, some nurses shift gears to stay ‘loyal’ to field

As the coronavirus pandemic enters year three, some nurses opt for jobs that allow more autonomy — such as travel nursing — and offer higher pay, while others choose new gigs in hospitals — for less pay — to try to manage the stress and exhaustion they’ve experienced since 2020.

SHARE Despite fluctuating pandemic pay, stress and fear, some nurses shift gears to stay ‘loyal’ to field
Travel nurse Ngozi Enyia said that at times during the pandemic her weekly pay tripled.

Travel nurse Ngozi Enyia said that at times during the pandemic her weekly pay tripled.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago-area nurse Ngozi Enyia found her skills in such high demand during the coronavirus pandemic that at times her weekly pay tripled.

The higher pay was one of the reasons why she opted to work as a travel nurse for the past five years after working for a year as a staff nurse. She made the transition to ensure she could pay for her household expenses, student loans and support her son.

Travel nurses work temporary stints in a location, allowing them more flexibility to choose their assignments and where they want to work.

During the past two years, Enyia, 40, was able to set aside money to finally start building a medical uniform business she’d long thought about creating.

“If it wasn’t for the extra income, it could have taken me so much longer. I probably wouldn’t even ever have felt that I could take the risk or take the leap in doing it,” Enyia said about starting her business, Dimma Collective. “It was always an idea that I had for years.”

In the two years since COVID-19 began to spread across the country and put medical workers on the front lines of the pandemic, some nurses like Enyia have been able to weather the financial storm felt by many workers from job losses and cutbacks. In fact, Enyia said her pay tripled at times during the pandemic, ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 a week.

But other nurses who work in Chicago-area hospitals — whose pay either fluctuated or was outweighed by stress, exhaustion and the fear of catching COVID — say they are still hoping wages and benefits improve in their workplaces.

Ngozi Enyia, 40, was able to save money from her lucrative job as a travel nurse during the coronavirus pandemic to start her own business, Dimma Collective.

Ngozi Enyia, 40, saved money from her lucrative job as a travel nurse during the coronavirus pandemic to start her own business, Dimma Collective.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In May 2020 — during the coronavirus pandemic — the median yearly pay for registered nurses was $75,330 across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median yearly wages for nurses in hospital settings was typically more — $76,840 — than those who worked in nursing and residential care facilities — $68,450, according to the agency.

Throughout the pandemic, many nurses in Chicago and across the country demanded more money and better benefits and protections from their employers during rallies and work stoppages.

Falguni Dave, a nurse at Stroger Hospital, took part in a one-day protest in June 2021 during contract negotiations for Cook County Health registered nurses.

They were able to secure pay increases ranging from 12% to 31% that will take effect during the duration of the four-year contract, but Dave said she and others still want the county to meet their promise of fulfilling staff nurse vacancies.

As part of the agreement, 300 nursing positions were supposed to be filled within 18 months, according to National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, which represents county nurses.

Dave said some nurses were still getting sick with COVID-19 as of late February, while other veteran nurses have opted for early retirement.

“The county management and the HR department has not really wholeheartedly put in a true effort to recruit, hire and retain nurses,” Dave said.

When COVID-19 started to spread, Dave was working as a charge nurse — overseeing the nurses within a section of the hospital — for the first unit to treat Cook County Jail detainees who had fallen ill with the virus. It was the first COVID-19 unit at Stroger, and Dave said she didn’t go home for the first three months out of fear of spreading the virus to her family.

About a year later, the stress of the job led Dave to decide to take a demotion and pay cut to instead work in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Dave said she thought about leaving the field entirely but didn’t want to leave amid the pandemic.

“It started to affect me physically, emotionally because it gets tiring after awhile — you’re dealing with all this stress at work, and you pretty much have no support from management to help change any of the situation,” Dave said.

Even before the pandemic, nurses were experiencing “moral injury,” which can affect the well-being of a person and can be debilitating, said Patricia Pittman, the director of the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at the George Washington University, which is conducting research on it.

At the start of the pandemic, nurses were concerned about having enough personal protective equipment, Pittman said. More recently, nurses have been experiencing exhaustion from what they’ve witnessed in the past two years, she said. In addition, some have seen more work added to their duties because of staff cuts, she said.

“In this more recent period, we have not only the extraordinary exhaustion and despair of having witnessed so much human suffering, but the sense that many of the health care leaders and even some of the physicians were relying on the nurses on doing the everyday hard work of being in the room,” Pittman said. “They were cutting back on support staff so nurses were doing everything from cleaning rooms and taking out the food trays.”

One of the things that made Danish — who asked that his full name not be used — leave his job as a nurse at a Chicago-area hospital and return to travel nursing was how his shifts changed during the pandemic. He would sometimes be called off when he was scheduled to work and other times would be moved around to different units than the ones he typically worked, he said.

For Danish, the flexibility to take time off was one of the main reasons why he became a travel nurse. Although he said his pay increased, he also relocated to a different state with a higher cost of living than Illinois.

“If after a contract is done — if, mentally, I’m just checked out — I can take off two weeks before I sign my next contract,” Danish said. “Versus like staffers, you have to put your (paid time off) request months in advance that only will get half of it approved.”

Stephanie Mendoza, a labor and delivery nurse in the Chicago area, said she’s gotten temporary pay raises throughout the past two years, but none made a significant difference in her family’s overall finances. And while she knows how much more nurses who have left their position to become travel nurses make, Mendoza said she has no plans to leave her job.

She said her unit is tight-knit, and she cares about the patients she sees during her shifts. Mendoza was hospitalized for about two weeks early in the pandemic when she contracted COVID-19, and it gave her insight into how patients felt. It’s why she tries to spend more time now talking to patients one on one during her rounds.

Still, she thinks the overall pay for a nurse should increase, and she thinks hospitals should provide additional pay as an incentive to pick up extra shifts. She notes that some nurses have gotten sick while others with children had to take time off because of changes at schools and day cares.

“You have committed staff, you have staff that’s loyal that loves the place, loves the population, and you can’t compensate them for the additional time that they stay and the risk of infection and all these things that other agencies and other institutions can compensate,” Mendoza said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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