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Why more travel nurses have decided to stay in Maine as full-time staff

Northern Light Health is seeing an increase in "travelers" signing on as permanent staff.

MAINE, Maine — One of Maine's largest hospital systems said more travel nurses are choosing to stay on as permanent staff. 

Northern Light Health relies on about 200 travel nurses to fill staff shortages in a number of areas of the hospital system, often a much higher pay rate. 

Hundreds have come to Maine from across the country since the early days of the pandemic. But thanks to a number of incentives system, officials say there has been an increase in travel nurses choosing to stay on as full-time staff when their contracts are up.

During the height of the pandemic, Sam Retell worked as an emergency room nurse at a hospital in upstate New York. It was an experience that she recalled as emotionally and physically exhausting. 

"We never got to take breaks or anything," Retell said. 

As the pandemic raged on, Retell joined thousands of other hospital staffers who quit their jobs and hit the road as travel nurses, often tripling their salaries. In November of 2021, she came to Maine with plans to work at different hospitals with severe staffing shortages. Her first assignment was in the emergency room at Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland. 

She immediately felt welcomed and supported by her bosses and the staff. Her husband also got a great job, and the couple fell in love with Greater Portland.  After her travel nurse contract was up, Retell signed on full time.  

"Together we decided we liked it here, and we can grow where we are," Retell explained. 

Samantha Rivera worked as an operating room nurse before and during the pandemic, landing jobs in trauma and surgery centers from Missouri to Nevada. She and her family moved to Maine for a traveling nurse position in Mercy's surgery department. Thanks to a positive working relationship between nurses and surgeons, plus an upcoming promotion, she is staying on permanently.

"Here I can get certified can continue to work on my education and also the experiences I wasn't able to get as a traveler," Rivera added.

As COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped, so has the demand and pay for traveling nurses. Northern Light Health has about 500 openings for registered nurses, systemwide. But $3,000 to $15,000 sign-on bonuses, competitive wages, training, education, and certification opportunities are helping change that picture.   

"I was just looking at the overall retention of nurses. We are getting back to where we were several years ago," Catharine MacLaren, the vice president for talent and diversity at Northern Light Health, explained. 

That includes Sam Hanley, a former traveling nurse who spent years at large hospitals in Boston. Scrubbing up with Rivera and surgeons at Mercy where she said she feels appreciated helped convince her to put down roots in Maine.  

"I think that played a huge difference in why I am still here and not a traveler, that I am permanently here now because I felt so valued and so welcomed," Hanley explained. 

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