Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT
Often the reason that people choose to pursue a career as a travel therapist, or even just decide to work a few travel therapy contracts, is to make more money. For people coming out of school with massive student loan debt, finding a way to deal with that debt is a primary concern, and travel therapy is a great way to make more money especially when starting out as a new grad. This leads to the most common question people have when first researching the pros and cons of travel therapy: How much money do travel therapists make?
Understanding Pay Differences for Travelers
Travel therapist pay is a little different from that of permanent full time positions, and therefore it commonly leads to some confusion for those first looking into pay differences between travel and permanent positions. Travel therapists’ compensation is made up of a combination of taxable pay and untaxed money (stipends for housing, meals, and incidentals) assuming that you meet the requirements for receiving the untaxed stipends. Since part of the money is untaxed, this leads to significantly higher net pay for a travel therapist. This is best illustrated through examples of each scenario.
Permanent Job Pay
First, let’s break down what a traditional pay package would look like at a permanent physical therapist job. This scenario would be comparable for an OT or SLP job as well. For PTA and COTA, the values would be lower, but the principle is the same.
Many new grads PTs accept a job with hourly pay in the $30-$35/hour range, but of course this can vary depending on the setting and the area of the country as well as your negotiating skills. I’ve talked to physical therapists that have taken a permanent job as a new grad making as low as $20/hour and others that have negotiated $40/hour, so the true range is massive, but around $30-$35 seems to be the average. We’ll take the top of that average range and find the gross yearly pay for someone working a permanent full time job making $35/hour:
- $35/hour X 40 hours per week X 52 weeks per year = $72,800 annual salary
Gross pay is pretty straight forward and simple to understand, but determining how much of that gross pay you actually get to keep (i.e. net pay) is harder to understand and often overlooked when therapists talk about their hourly compensation or salary. Let’s look at how much of that money is yours after Uncle Sam takes his cut. The total percentage will depend on where you live, but on average across the country, a person making $75k is going to have about 25% taken out for taxes. Click here for more information on tax rates in major cities across the country. Here’s a look at the permanent physical therapist’s net pay after taxes based on the average 25% tax rate:
- $72,800 X .75= $54,600 annual salary
- $54,600/52= $1,050/week (if divided out into weekly pay in order to better compare to travel jobs )
This is an approximate bring home pay per week based on a $35 per hour job working 40 hours per week. If you have offers for higher salary positions than that, feel free to use the calculations above to estimate your pay. Note that all 401k (traditional), HSA contributions as well as all medical, dental, life, disability costs will come out of the gross salary.
For a more specific example we’ll use Virginia’s state tax rate. Not only is this where Whitney and I live and maintain our tax home, but it’s also near the middle of the range as far as state income taxes go, which makes it closer to the average for everyone. Pay Check City has a great tool to use for your specific scenario and is the site I’ll use to calculate the take home pay below.
$1,024/week would be the weekly take home pay for a permanent physical therapist in the above scenario who lives in Virginia, which is pretty close to the $1,050/week using the 25% rule of thumb above. For quick calculations, multiplying your salary or hourly rate by .75 is a good way to get an estimate of how much of your gross pay you actually keep.
Travel Job Pay
Now let’s take a look at how travel therapist pay differs. Travel pay consists of a few different parts:
- Hourly Rate (taxable)
- Housing allowance (not taxed)
- Meal and incidental allowance (not taxed)
Travel pay will generally be presented in a total gross or net weekly amount. If a gross weekly pay number is presented, then that would include the hourly taxable rate x 40 hours, then adding in the housing, meals, and incidentals stipends. If the net pay number is given, then that is usually calculated using the 25% tax rule of thumb above, which as we saw with the specific example isn’t always accurate, but it’s a good estimate of what the traveler’s tax rate might be. This would be gross pay x .75 then adding in the housing, meals, and incidentals stipends. If you know that your tax rate is different, for example if you have a family, then when a recruiter presents you with a gross and/or net weekly pay number, you need to be sure to run the numbers based on your tax rate.
Here are examples of two potential travel PT pay packages that Travis recently received to further help illustrate how travel therapist pay actually works:
- Hourly rate: $20/hour (taxed)
- Housing allowance: $630/week (not taxed)
- Meals and Incidentals allowance: $230/week (not taxed)
Total take home pay (net pay using 25% rule of thumb above for the hourly wage) per week before deductions for benefits: $1,460 per week
- Hourly rate: $20/hour (taxed)
- Housing allowance: $730/week (not taxed)
- Meals and Incidentals allowance: $330/week (not taxed)
Total take home pay (net pay using 25% rule of thumb above for the hourly wage) per week before deductions for benefits: $1,660 per week
How are Hourly Rates and Stipend Amounts Determined?
You may be looking at the travel pay package examples above and thinking, “If the stipends aren’t taxed, then why not make them as high as possible with a lower hourly wage to maximize net pay?” That’s a great question and something that I wondered when first starting out, which led to me doing a lot of research on the topic. There are a couple of reasons why this is illegal based on IRS tax laws.
The taxable hourly rate should be a reasonable amount for the job position in order to avoid “wage recharacterization.” To read the IRS definition of wage recharacterization, check out this link, but basically it means avoiding taxes by changing compensation from a taxable hourly wage to a nontaxed stipend. There is debate about what a reasonable wage is for various therapist positions, and it’s always best to consult a tax expert if you’re in doubt, but us here at Travel Therapy Mentor (all of whom are travel physical therapists) choose to keep our taxable wages at $20/hour or above to be safe and not take any risks as far as wage recharacterization is concerned for a physical therapist. This number may be different based on your profession and comfort level with the IRS law interpretation.
The other reason it isn’t possible to have massive stipends and a very low taxable wage is due to the GSA guidelines. The GSA determines the maximum allowable stipends for housing, meals, and incidentals in different areas throughout the country, and it applies to anyone traveling for work, including travel therapists. These numbers vary drastically depending on the area of the country you’ll be working in due to variance in the cost of living in each location. Keep in mind that these are the maximum amounts and not necessarily how much you will receive in stipends for that area. Depending on how much the facility that you’ll be working at as a traveler is able to pay for the position, you may receive significantly less than the maximum amounts. We always consult the GSA website before accepting a job offer to make sure that the stipends we will be receiving are not above the maximum amounts for that particular area.
These guidelines exist to keep people honest and not allow people to take advantage of the tax code, which is a good thing even though it’s a bummer that we can’t increase our pay more by paying even less in taxes as travel therapists. This leads to the next topic: what offers can you expect to receive as far as pay is concerned as a travel therapist?
Average Pay for Travel Therapists
Just as with permanent positions, travel pay can vary significantly depending on setting and location. I’ve talked to other physical therapists that make as low as $1,200/week take home pay and others that make as much as $2,200/week take home. That’s quite the range! And again, this will vary based on your specialty (PT, OT, SLP, PTA, COTA).
In general, the highest paying contracts are seen with home health and lowest paying are skilled nursing facilities, in our experience. Also in general, jobs on the west coast pay more than the east coast, and jobs in rural areas pay more than cities and urban areas. These observations were a surprise to us when starting out, since this is often different than the factors affecting pay in permanent positions. Taking the above into account, it’s easy to see why someone working a home health job in a rural location in California would make a lot more than someone working a skilled nursing job in Richmond, VA. Another factor that affects pay significantly is how desperate the facility is to fill the position quickly. Whitney and I once found contracts on the east coast at a wonderful outpatient facility in a great location that paid us very well because they needed the positions filled very quickly and we were ready to go!
With the above factors in mind, an average pay range for a traveling physical therapist is between $1,600-$1,800/week after taxes in our experience based on the US as a whole and all settings considered. Whitney and I have personally averaged around $1,650/week after taxes over the past three years while taking contracts exclusively on the east coast and almost always in outpatient facilities. The range has been between $1,500/week to $1,900/week.
We don’t recommend any traveling PT’s, OT’s and SLP’s, even new grads, take pay packages less than $1,500/week after taxes in any area. Some companies and recruiters will do their best to take advantage of new travelers, new grads especially, by offering them very low pay, knowing that they don’t really have a baseline of what pay should be yet as a traveler. This is why having a mentor in your corner as a new traveler is vital to keep from getting taken advantage of when starting out! Reach out to us with questions and for recruiter/company recommendations and we will be happy to help you!
How to Accurately Compare Pay for Travel Jobs to Permanent Positions
When comparing pay from a travel job to a permanent job, I often find that people get confused by the weekly take home amounts quoted for travel contracts. An individual that has never taken a travel contract will see $1,650/week take home, multiply that by 52 (weeks in a year) and then compare that to their permanent job gross salary and determine that travel isn’t worth it.
As we figured out above, that is no where near an accurate comparison. You have to either convert the gross permanent pay into a weekly take home amount (using the 25% rule of thumb above or the PayCheckCity site) as we did above, or convert the weekly take home pay of a travel therapist into an equivalent amount if it was a permanent position. The second is a more difficult calculation with no easy rule of thumb since tax rates increase significantly as pay gets higher, but luckily PayCheckCity makes it much easier using their “Gross Up” calculator. Let’s see what gross pay you’d have to make at a permanent job to equal the $1,650/week after taxes that Whitney and I have averaged while traveling.
We would have to make a staggering gross pay of $2,390/week at a permanent job to bring home the same $1,650/week take home pay that we have while traveling! That’s the equivalent of $60/hour or a salary of well over $120,000/year at a permanent job! When expressed in these terms, it’s easy to see how much more lucrative travel therapy is over a permanent job and how I was able to save over $100,000 in 1.5 years as a new grad travel therapist.
Based on our experiences and the hundreds of others travel therapists that we have talked to and mentored, it’s not unrealistic for a new grad travel therapist to make 1.5-2 times as much as they would if they took a full time permanent job right out of school.
The Bottom Line on Perm vs. Travel Jobs
It is important to remember that despite the significantly higher pay, there are some trade offs to traveling, which Whitney did a great job of outlining in her pros and cons article mentioned above. The big downsides to remember in terms of pay are that travel therapists don’t get paid time off for vacations like permanent therapists do, and it can be difficult to move from place to place in only a weekend, meaning that sometimes unwanted time off between contracts is inevitable. These factors eat into the pay of travelers, but even so, it is still significantly higher with all things considered.
I hope this helps clarify the differences in pay for permanent vs travel jobs. Please contact us or ask questions in the comments below if we can help you further understand pay, or if you have suggestions for travel topics for us to cover in the future.
What has your experience been as far as pay for permanent jobs or travel jobs? Do the numbers in the article match what you’ve seen? Let us know in the comments!