An alarming crisis is looming on our healthcare horizon, with forecasts of a mass nursing exodus over the next five to 10 years from a system that is already woefully short-staffed. For a combination of reasons, up to 20 percent of registered nurses (900,000) plan to leave the profession by 2027. This is a dire predicament for a nation with an aging population.

The good news is that U.S. staffing companies are addressing the issue, recruiting skilled, foreign-educated nursing professionals to fill life-threatening gaps in care. Today, international workers make up one-sixth of the U.S. nursing workforce. But sadly, this story has a dark side.

The belief that America is the land of opportunity motivates the arrival of most foreign nurses. However, others see a different kind of opportunity: to exploit our legal system with frivolous lawsuits for a big payday.

In one case, a nurse filed a lawsuit alleging human trafficking violations against the agency that arranged her U.S. employment. Such accusations not only besmirch the reputation of an industry held to the highest ethical standards but also trivialize the horrific experiences of genuine survivors of human trafficking.

In the suit against Worldwide Healthstaff, a direct placement recruiting company, the nurse alleges that she and other nurses were never paid for overtime work. Nurses who failed to complete their contractual requirements were forced to repay the immigration costs incurred while acquiring a visa. In the nurse’s words, her experience was “indentured servitude.”

Unfortunately, this is a growing trend. In recent years, foreign health professionals have implicated staffing companies and other employers in multiple frivolous lawsuits, making increasingly outrageous claims. Even if their claims were factually accurate, these cases would amount to nothing more than a simple contract dispute. Workers voluntarily enter into an agreement to work in the United States for a predetermined duration in exchange for the staffing agency fronting costs for visa sponsorship and covered immigration, travel, training and temporary housing costs.

Like many standard employment contracts, staffing agencies require a time commitment from the nurses to protect their up-front investments. Without such clauses, nothing could stop an individual from obtaining a free visa and traveling to the United States, only to quit immediately.

To equate a contract dispute to the utter tragedy of human trafficking gives these lawsuits a sinister tone. To be clear, backing out of a purely voluntary deal is not human trafficking or indentured servitude — it’s a worker failing to honor a contract. To equate that experience with trafficking, slavery or forced-labor violations makes a mockery of victims throughout the world.

Beyond minimizing the plight of victims who lack free will, this case highlights changes to the models used in healthcare staffing agencies, which could be pivotal in freeing this industry from the ambush of meritless lawsuits threatening their survival.

The nurse who filed the recent complaint was recruited by an agency that uses the direct international recruitment model to exclusively recruit healthcare workers and then pass them off to work as employees of its clients’ healthcare facilities. The alternative model is based on staffing agencies hiring recruits as employees then contracting them out to hospitals, other facilities or home care. When hired as employees, the agencies have more control over working conditions, job responsibilities and hours of work, and can vest their workers with benefits and other incentives to increase worker retention and satisfaction. The fact that this improved employment model allows for greater engagement with employee circumstances should not be an excuse to let the other model be a punching bag within our legal system.

America is in crisis — we’re running out of nurses, and it’s only worsening. McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, recently revealed findings from a 2023 study conducted on the state of nursing in the United States, and the results are dire. One-third of nurses report they intend to leave their jobs. Absurd lawsuits against agencies filling critical gaps in care with foreign-educated professionals have the potential to deter international recruitment efforts, which could cause the gaps in care that foreign-educated nurses selflessly serve to quickly become chasms.

America needs the nurses these agencies bring — let’s not undermine them with senseless litigation that makes a mockery of the legal system.