For healthcare providers who forgo permanent employment in favor of working through temporary agencies on a contract or per diem basis (or, for doctors, in a locum tenens capacity), their jobs truly are what they make of them.
Although staffing agency work has both its advantages (including flexibility, higher hourly wages and a steady stream of new challenges) and its disadvantages (poorer benefits and a sometimes-unnerving level of uncertainty), longtime healthcare temps say that the pros far outweigh the cons.
Temp Physical Therapist Enjoys Flextime
"I don't know if I would ever go back to having a permanent job," says Stephanie Sullivan, a physical therapist in Kansas who works through the Delta Flex division of The Delta Companies. Sullivan started out as a healthcare traveler who moved around the country every few months for temporary assignments, but she has remained in Wichita since 2008, first working at a long-term-care facility on an extended temporary contract and now working in home healthcare.
Sullivan cites the flexibility of getting to take time off -- albeit unpaid -- whenever she wants and a higher hourly rate as her primary motivations for working as a temp. Every three to six months, when she is renewing her current contract or getting a new assignment, she takes two to four weeks off. She also gets to use her skills in a variety of settings, which helps prevent "job burnout or getting into a rut," she says.
Sullivan notes that temp work probably isn't right for everyone. Successful temp workers have to be "self-starters, or they won't flourish," she says. For healthcare providers in small communities, temp opportunities are likely limited. And although temps can often obtain health insurance and retirement benefits through their agencies, the cost to the temp is usually extremely high. Finally, "If you're the type of person who gets stressed out knowing that you're in a temporary job and at any time they could hire someone permanently and eliminate your position, it probably wouldn't work for you," Sullivan says.
Need to Plan for the Slower Times
Edward Vinson, who has worked at more than 20 healthcare facilities during his 14 years as a per diem licensed vocational nurse in the Dallas area, has learned to deal with the uncertainty and prepare for the lean times. Vinson, who currently works through nursing employment agency Nursefinders, usually works short-term jobs that last anywhere from a day to a week, when the census shoots up at a facility or as a replacement for a permanent staffer who is on vacation or in training.
During most of the year, the demand for Vinson's services is so high that he can work whenever he wants (he usually works 40 hours a week, days only). However, his options narrow right before Christmas and right before summer. "You may want to work, but you can't because the regular staff is picking up extra shifts to pay for the holidays and for vacations," he says. According to Vinson, who estimates that he typically earns $5 to $8 more an hour than a permanent LVN, "learning how to manage the slow times and knowing when they fall" is important for newcomers to temping.
Temps Shielded from Some Hospital Politics
Jaime Gottschall, a respiratory therapist who works through STAT Staffing in Pittsburgh, is currently on a long-term contract at a facility for the developmentally disabled and generally works 40 hours a week spread over three days. She chose to go the temp route in 2007 because of the flexibility. She didn't want to work holidays or many weekends, as required of many permanent respiratory therapists. "I wanted to still have a life and see my husband and family, who live on the other side of the state," she says. Plus, when she was a permanent employee, she recognized temp workers' higher pay. Now she loves temp life. "The hospital politics [are] a little less," she says. "You can come in, do your job, take care of clients and leave."
According to Gottschall, the reception that healthcare temps receive is often -- but not always -- appreciative. "They either love you or they hate you," she says. "Some hospitals will thank you from the time you get there until the time you leave. At other hospitals, the fact that you're doing the same job and getting paid almost double makes people a little upset."
LVN Vinson notes that occasionally permanent staffers "dump" the most undesirable tasks on temps. "I have to speak up and say 'I'm here to help you and I don't have to be,'" Vinson says. Finding equipment and supplies and learning how the unit operates are more common challenges, he says. "My philosophy is that nursing is nursing," he says. "Wherever you go, it's going to be the same. You just have to adapt to where you're at, how they chart and where they locate things."
Testing the Waters
Many healthcare temps test the waters when they still have a permanent job by signing up with a temporary employment agency and picking up a few shifts as a temp worker now and then. Other healthcare temps hear about temporary employment agencies through friends and colleagues.
Temping is "a great opportunity for nurses to pump up their experience and learn new things," adds Vinson, who plans to continue temping for the foreseeable future. "Each day is different. If you decide to take a permanent job, you're just that much more valuable because you know more."