By October 7, 2011 6 Comments

Ask a Travel Nurse: What should I do when my travel nurse assignment has gone bad?


frustrated travel nurseAsk a Travel Nurse Question:

Hello! I am on my 1st travel contract. It is not what I was hoping it would be. I am currently working in a Neuro ICU. It’s more of a stroke unit and not at all what it was advertised to be. I was also in a rollover car accident. Luckily everyone was ok. That near death experience has made me miss my “home” more than ever! The unit I’m working in is very negative and going through a rough transition phase. Has anyone else felt this way on their 1st contract? I’m stuck between canceling it and going home to my old hospital or sticking it out. I’m only about 4 weeks into my contract. Any advice? I know I should talk to my recruiter about it and see what she thinks? Always good to have an open channel of communication. She’s been very helpful thus far and I’m not sure how she’ll react when I tell her this? Thanks!

Ask a Travel Nurse Answer:

Sorry that things turned out this way on your first contract. It does not matter if it is your first or thirty-first, whenever there is chaos on the job, it makes it very difficult being away from home. However, when all this happens on your first assignment, it only makes it harder to justify travel nursing at all. You are not alone in feeling this way, but from this point on, it is only you that can decide where you go from here.

There are two ways you can look at this. First, you might decide that life is too short and you do NOT have to put up with anything you choose not to. If you feel as if being close to family and friends is what matters, then breaking your contract might be what is right for you. But if this is your decision, speak with your recruiter and see what the best way to proceed might be. It all depends on your travel company, but some will enforce fees or penalties for canceling a contract. If you are not financially secure enough, then figure out the worst case scenario. Often, one thing that could happen is the travel company withholding your last paycheck. I believe in most states that you HAVE to be paid for hours worked (but I’m not an attorney and all questions of law should be h and led by a professional working in the state where your contract is governed). Also, the travel company may try to get around this by enforcing fees or penalties that essentially strip your last paycheck earnings. This is why it is ALWAYS important to know what your contract says, especially in the case of cancellation.

You should also not expect any travel money for the trip home. Some companies will even try to tell you that you owe for your housing for the rest of the contract. However, this would be hard to enforce without them taking legal action and I can’t imagine it would be worth it to them (but something you must consider just the same).

I have had two contracts canceled over a period of a decade and a half. One cost me $50 because I was in company housing without working for a week while they found me another contract. The other cost me around $1000 in lost wages and unimbursed travel, canceling cable services early, etc. However, my company did not impose any fees or penalties (due to the amount of time I had been with them) and I did collect my last paycheck.

So if you feel you must walk on this assignment, just have a conversation with your recruiter, explain the situation, and see how to best accomplish the termination of the contract.

Now the second way you can look at this also involves feeling that life is precious and should be enjoyed to the full extent. Travel nursing is a wonderful way to see the states and it is an opportunity not many people have with the professions they choose. Once you have your first assignment under your belt, that will open up more opportunities for you due to not having to avoid hospitals that specify “no first-time travelers”. However, you may need to change the way you select assignments if you are taking assignments in locations where you might not necessarily want to go.

For me, travel has ALWAYS been about location. If you choose where you want to go, and wont settle until you get that location, then each assignment is like a vacation. I wanted to see Hawaii on my first assignment. I had to wait a little longer, but then I spent thirteen weeks in the middle of the winter on Maui. I also pursued other interests I had while on assignments in certain locations. I wanted to learn to SCUBA dive and my Maui and South Florida assignments helped accomplish that. A Phoenix assignment gave me opportunities in rock climbing and repelling as well as trips up to the Gr and Canyon and Sedona. In L.A. I studied improv at the Groundlings theater where people like Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, and Lisa Kudrow got their start. Several assignments in Hawaii allowed me to try surfing. San Diego provided great weather for learning to skydive and Santa Monica proved equally as nice for my flying lessons. I have so many things that I have been able to pursue because of being a travel nurse. I was also able to make time for trips home and also had a few extended summers when I went back and worked per diem at local hospitals.

Now it may seem like I’m steering you in a certain direction. Again, only you know what is best for you, but I wanted to let you know that you have not experienced, by far, all that travel nursing has to offer. Yes, there will be assignments that suck. But even on the ones I hated, I seized the opportunities in the area on my days off. I loathed my San Francisco assignment and it was the only assignment where I seriously considered walking. But on my days off, I went to Golden Gate Park, snapped tons of pics of the Golden Gate Bridge, or saw local attractions like Alcatraz. Those are the things I remember most, not how many times they floated me.

If you are on the fence about things, then I would say stick it out. Then you will have more opportunities once that assignment ends. Yes, every day is precious and you could die tomorrow, but what if you live the next 50 years? Will you look back and wonder what things you might have been able to experience if you stuck with it? There must be something that drew you to travel nursing in the beginning. I’m just saying that maybe you shouldn’t judge things based on one crappy assignment.

Whatever your decision, it only has to be the right one for you, and nobody else. I just hope this helps you sort things out a bit.


About the Author:

Hello everyone. I’m a travel nurse originally from Ohio who graduated in 1993 from Mount Carmel School of Nursing in Columbus. I completed a critical care fellowship at Riverside Methodist Hospital in 1994 and started traveling in that specialty a year later. My first travel assignment was in Maui and since that time I have completed close to 40 different contracts in various states with multiple travel companies. I am the author of Travel Nurse’s Bible (A Guide to Everything on Travel Nursing), in addition to my writings here and in the pages of Travel Nursing publications such as Healthcare Traveler Magazine and American Nurse Today. I am presently on assignment in Phoenix, AZ and travel anywhere from six to eleven months of the year.

6 Comments on "Ask a Travel Nurse: What should I do when my travel nurse assignment has gone bad?"

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  1. tilly says:

    Did two assignments for OR both HORRIBLE, second got cancelled after two weeks!! I didn’t fit in?
    Have been an OR nurse and Scrub Tech for over 25 YRS @ Major North OHIO teaching faclities. Stay out of
    any thing in OHIO except Cleveland and Toledo.

  2. Rod Perk says:

    It’s a first time for everything. Good luck on your nursing career.

  3. Charity


    Thank you for the great article, David! From a recruiter’s perspective, I have to emphasize David’s point about having a heart-to-heart with your recruiter about your concerns. It’s always appreciated when I have an opportunity to solve the problem, but I don’t necessarily know there IS a problem until it’s communicated. I may not be able to fix it, but sometimes just knowing that you have someone on your side listening to what’s going on can make a huge difference, especially when you are working in more of a negative environment.

  4. Mildred King


    Stay out of Big Fork MN no housing will work you all three shifts in as many days really crummy place to go

  5. Monica


    My first contract has been very disappointing, I worked on a unit with a unfriendly environment and poor management. I was told in my interview that it would be self scheduling 4 maybe sometimes 5 patients which were both false statements. A charge nurse that was unapproachable. And after a family member yelled at me for thinking I was rude because I could not take his mother in law to bathroom because I was with another patient and told him I would be there soon she wouldn’t have to wait much longer…my contract was terminated by management that didn’t even have the professional respect of calling me or discussing what happen before terminating my contract 3 days before Christmas.

  6. David says:

    Hello Monica. I’m sorry your first assignment was not a great introduction into the world of travel.

    There will be assignments where the staff is unfriendly and unwilling to help. Those assignments usually do not keep travel nurses long and smart companies stop working with them. However, that is of little consolation when you are the one it affects at the time.

    I have had my fair share of difficult assignments; you don’t exactly go for the work, but it’s nice when you have a good working environment.

    Next time, ask your recruiter if that unit or hospital has had any contract terminations (they may not know if through another company). Also ask in the interview if the unit has used travelers before, if the staff is receptive to them, who do you use as a resource? Basically, anything that may help you weed out a troubled unit.

    If something doesn’t seem right, always trust your instincts.

    If you love the travel, I’d encourage you to try it again. Over two decades, I’ve had some tough assignments, but the ones where I loved being a travel nurse far outweighed the few troubling experiences.

    I hope this helps you feel like trying again.


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