Traveler Tips//April 07, 2021

Travel Nursing Contracts: Tips & Tricks


travel nursing contracts

Author: Caleb Skyles, RN, BSN, CCRN​

There’s probably nothing more important in travel nursing than travel nursing contract and if you just don’t have the time to read what I’m about to write – then let me leave you with this golden rule when it comes to travel nursing contracts:

If it’s not in your contract, it doesn’t exist.

Not only does your contract lay out your job specifications, responsibilities, and the details of your rate of pay but it also serves as a tax document that you’ll need to verify the nature of your tax-free travel reimbursements. 

So let’s get to it. Following is my “checklist” of everything that should (or could) be in your travel nursing contract:

Travel Nursing Contracts: ​The Basics

There are some very basic rules you should following when it comes to signing your very first travel nursing contract:

  • First and foremost, always have a signed contract before you begin work, or travel to a work site
  • Make sure your contract lists your hourly rate (see notes below about travel stipends)
  • Make sure you contract specifies the length of your contract (see notes below about hours)
  • Make sure your contract includes basic information about your role and responsibilities (see notes about ‘confirmation’)

Travel Nursing Contracts: Make Sure Your Confirmation Matches Your Conversation

Travelers are in the unique position where they are essentially working for their agency (who is also working for them) and the hospital with which they sign a contract. A nurse will typically interview with the hospital, the hospital will send the agency an offer and the agency will send the hospital an acceptance of such offer with a “Confirmation” (which is essentially an addendum to the contract) that includes all the basic information (like your name, license number, hospital location, etc.) and any verbal agreements you made with the hospital during your interview.

For example: Perhaps during your interview with the hospital you agreed to only 1 float shift per week. Make sure you communicate these conversations with your travel nurse agency so they can include it in your confirmation when it comes time to accept the offer.

Travel Nursing Contracts: Every Contract Should Include….

Now this will vary a little of course, as not every travel nurse agency does it exactly the same – but below is a checklist of what you should, at bare minimum, find on every contact:

  • Agency name, location, contact information
  • Hospital name, location, contact information
  • Your name and permanent address
  • Hospital unit
  • Start and end date
  • Shift (including start and end time)
  • Number of shifts per week along with number of contracted hours per week
  • Number of contracted overtime hours 
  • Pay period specifications such as weekly, biweekly, or monthly and how often payroll is processed
  • Reporting requirements for timesheets
  • Your hourly taxable rate for regular, overtime and on-call hours
  • Your meals & incidental expenditure (M&IE), lodging and travel reimbursement rates
  • Details on any benefits you’ll be receiving (medical, dental, vision, retirement, PTO, sick leave, etc.)
  • Details on guaranteed hours (see section on hours below)

​Travel Nursing Contracts: Some Contracts May Include….

Of course, everyone wants to be protected, including your travel nurse agency so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the following may be included on your contract.

Penalties for Missed Hours
Because your agency has promised a certain number of hours to the hospital you’ll be working for, your contract may include a “missed hours penalty” (which usually translates to dollars signs) if you call out for any reason.

Penalties for Cancelled Hours
This one is in your favor. Because your agency has promised YOU a certain amount of hour, you contract can include a “cancelled hours penalty” which usually means the hospital has to pay you what you would have earned had you worked the cancelled shift.

Cancellation Clause
This can go both ways to protect both the hospital and the nurse traveler. Should the hospital cancel the contract for any reason, they can be charged a penalty, and vice versa should the nurse cancel the contract for any reason.

Non-Compete Clause
Ok, the truth is, these are totally going by the wayside because (1) it’s too hard for agencies to track all former nurse travelers and (2) nurse travelers don’t like them. What is a non-compete clause? It’s basically a stipulation in your contract that limits you working with another travel nurse agency for “X” amount of time and/or limits being employed by the hospital you had the nurse travel contract with for “X” amount of time.

Travel Nursing Contracts: Figure Out Your Own Weekly Take-Home Pay

As someone new to the travel world, what you may not know is that the “hourly rate” advertised by agencies is often a blended rate: a combination of your actual hourly rate plus the total amount of your travel stipends.  For example, if the hourly rate is $20 and the total stipends given per week equal another $35 per hour (when divided by hours worked) the advertised rate will often be $55 an hour, and not $20.

Honest agencies will always break all this down for you and be straight up about what your actual hourly rate is (which is taxable income) and then provide you with a breakdown for housing, meals and incidental expenses (the M&IE stipend), which is not taxable so long as it does not exceed the maximum federal per diem rate (which most don’t).

You can then use a website like to figure out what your income taxes will be in the state you’re working, and what your actual take-home will be. It sounds kinda complicated the first time – but so are paychecks in general with all the new tax laws.

Travel Nursing Contracts: Get Your Hours in Writing

Not only do you want to have a signed contract in place before you start making the long drive to your new location, but you’ll want to make sure you get a guaranteed amount of hours per week, as many contracts will pay for a shift, even when it’s cancelled. Seriously – this is SO important. I’ve known many inexperienced travelers who didn’t get those hours in writing – and had numerous shifts cancelled on them – drastically reducing their earning potential. And don’t be fooled by some charmer who says something along the lines of “oh, we NEVER cancel ANY shifts we’re WAY too busy”. Insert eye roll and give them a cool thumbs up as you say: “then you won’t have a problem paying me for the shifts that ‘never’ get cancelled.”

Golden Rule: If they hire you for 36 hours a week (for example) make sure your contracts stipulates that you’ll get paid for all 36 hours – even if they cancel a shift.

Speaking of cancelling: It’s also a good idea to make sure that you have in writing that (a) there will be no penalty for cancelling a contract early (like if you break a leg or something) and (b) if there is any reimbursement if the hospital decides to cancel the contract for some reason (like if you paid for your gas to drive across country, will they reimburse you that cost if they cancel?)

​Travel Nursing Contracts: Explosive Holiday & Overtime Pay

Don’t forget holiday and overtime pay and that your contract stipulates what that rate will be. If it’s not in your contract – don’t assume you’ll get a higher rate for those times.

On holidays and with overtime you should be making time and a half on your hourly, taxable, rate. So, if the hourly rate is $20 an hour (and your stipend is $35 an hour) you’ll only make time and a half on the $20 – giving you a new hourly rate of $30 an hour. Some states require overtime pay for more than 8 hours a day (like California) but most only pay overtime for more than 40 hours a week.

Pro-Tip: You can try to dictate what you’d like your overtime to be. In many of my contracts I’ll ask for $50+ an hour for any hours over 40 as well as for all federal holidays. Just make sure whatever the rate you agree on, is written into your contract as well as what holidays, specifically, are covered. Don’t assume you’ll get holiday pay for all holidays – as hospitals make their own rules as to what they do and do not consider a holiday. 

True Story: That last part above is super important: Make sure you know which holidays you receive holiday rates for. I once worked New Year’s Eve thinking I would get my holiday rate but didn’t realize the hospital didn’t recognize it as a holiday. (Later learned many hospitals don’t count that day as a holiday.)

If I would have known I’d be working NYE without holiday pay I would have requested that day off and enjoyed that day/evening with friends and family. No point to working a holiday without holiday pay! Also – don’t count on the hospital giving you any time off you don’t specifically request before your contract is signed – especially holidays not counted as holidays (like NYE) that most staff will request off. 

Travel Nursing Contracts: Time-Off During Your Contract

​Anything and everything you want to negotiate should be done before that contract is signed. That includes time off. 

Time off during your contract: Get it in writing and be specific. If you’re looking to visit your family on a Monday and return to work on Friday, make sure you request your time off starting at midnight on Monday and ending at 7 or 8:00am on Friday. Otherwise you could be in the very unfortunate situation of having to go straight from a night shift right into your travels.

Pro-TipWhen you take time off during a contract make sure the dates and hours of your contract account for this time off. If it’s a 520-hour contract for example (five, 8-hour shifts per week for 13-weeks) and you took off for 40 hours (5-days), you’ll want to make sure the dates of your contract allow for that time off, without missing any hours worked. For example, the dates will probably need to cover 14 weeks (and not 13) to allow you the time to work all 520 hours. 

Travel Nursing Contracts: Odds & Ends

As a first-time traveler you may not know to ask for the following in your nursing contract – so make sure to bring it up– and have your travel nurse agency input the following into your Confirmation (see above) of the hospital’s offer:

Float Policy: As a travel nurse you’re often placed where you’re needed, so make sure that your contract specifies exactly what the float policy is and what units you are expected (and willing) to float to.

At many hospitals, travelers are first to float. If you are an ICU nurse, would you feel comfortable floating to a med-surg floor with a 6 patient load? Would you feel comfortable floating to the ED, without any ED experience?  Not me, however I’ve been in both situations. Make sure you know exactly what the float expectations are (honestly this should be made 100% clear when interviewing) and that those expectations are reflected in your contract. Also make clear what YOU are comfortable with, and make sure that’s in writing as well.

This way, you’ll have something to point to if some crazy house supervisor tries floating you to L&D when you’ve never delivered a baby in your life. 

Nurse to Patient Ratio: While it may be complicated to get a hospital to agree to a certain nurse to patient ratio, it’s definitely worth a try.

Charge Duty: Love it or hate it? And would you want to do it in a hospital (or setting) you’ve never worked in before? If your preference is “no” make sure your contract stipulates this desire.

Parking: Such a small little detail that can have huge financial implications if missed. Do you remember the last time you got free parking at a hospital? Probably never. If it’s not free, it’s probably costly. If your hospital does not provide free staff parking – see if you can get them to increase your hourly wage to account for the extra parking expense.

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