UPMC is launching an in-house “traveling” program for registered nurses and surgical techs to alleviate a staffing shortage in hospitals like UPMC Altoona.

The program is intended to help keep core nurses from leaving for high-paying travel jobs with outside agencies.

Hourly pay for the in-house travelers will be competitive, but the cost for UPMC will be only half as much as it pays for outside travelers, so there will be additional money to boost staffing levels, according to officials.

Travel agencies are charging UPMC $200 to $280 an hour, with the nurses themselves earning $85 to $90 an hour, according to UPMC officials.

“UPMC can hire two UPMC travel nurses or techs for the price of one outside agency nurse,” stated a news release. “This cost savings can be turned into staffing at optimal levels.”

Pre-pandemic, travel agencies charged about $85, said John Galley, UPMC chief human resources officer.

The new program will be the first of its kind in the country.

It’s a medium-term, partial solution to the staffing shortage problem, but it will be needed for the next few years at least, officials predicted.

And while it may lead to core employees leaving their current units, it’s meant to help core employees by providing relief from the current stress and overwork, according to Holly Lorenz, chief nurse executive.

In becoming travelers, core employees won’t be leaving the organization, just going where they’re needed, she said.

The program will offer six-week assignments, shorter than those of most travel agencies.

Under the new program, UPMC will pay $85 an hour for RNs and $63 for surgical techs. Benefits will be the same as for regular staffers.

In-house travelers will also receive an allowance of $2,880 every six weeks for assignments at least 60 miles away.

The travelers would need to be OK with living on the road and periodically working in unfamiliar situations.

“It’s not meant for everyone,” Lorenz said. “It can be very isolating.”

A staff nurse who wants relief from overtime responsibilities or who wants to travel, experience a variety of clinical environments or maybe pay off student loans could join the new group for a time, then return seamlessly to his or her old unit or move to an appealing hospital location, according to Galley and Lorenz.

There would be a drop in hourly pay to return to regular staff status, but the benefits would continue uninterrupted, Galley said.

The organization wants to ramp up slowly to 800 travelers, equal to the number of outside travelers currently at work, according to Galley.

The new program is part of a package of tactics that also include a bump in pay for a weekend employment program, a night shift program that provides a pay bump and doesn’t require shift rotations and a program that allows workers on the verge of retirement to transition with decreasing hours and benefit options, Lorenz said.

The organization is also working on the longer term solution with the recent launch of a UPMC nursing school in Erie County and the planned launch of a school in Harrisburg next year, which would bring the total of UPMC nursing schools to six.

The staffing challenges “are worse than ever before and have only continued to (get worse) since UPMC took over” in 2013, stated Altoona ICU nurse Sandy Wagner, a member of SEIU Healthcare PA, in response to a request for comment.

She seemed skeptical that the new initiative would make much difference.

“I don’t know all the details,” she stated in an email. “I do know that in order to keep experienced nurses at the bedside, UPMC needs to work with us and invest in long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes.”

In designing the travel program, UPMC relied on information gleaned from current staffers and from outside agency travelers who’ve been working with UPMC, Galley said.

“We’re seeing turnover we’ve never seen before” — double what it was at the same time last year, Lorenz said. The turnover has been largely driven by the high travel agency rates.

“This is a way for us to say, ‘Look, we’ve got a solution for you,’” Lorenz said. “You don’t have to leave.”

While the program will initially involve only nurses and surgical techs, it could expand to include other jobs.

Nurses and surgical techs can apply at

Careers.UPMC.com, then search UPMC Travel Staffing.

“We’re eager to start the interview process,” Lorenz said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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