Travel Therapy as a PTA or COTA during COVID-19: Why This Is a Bad Time to Pursue Travel Jobs

COVID-19 Impact on Travel Therapy Jobs

Oh, COVID-19. The bane of all of our existences that we didn’t see coming.

At the start of 2020, we probably all thought we were turning over a new leaf. New year, new you! New decade, new opportunities. This was going to be our best year yet! That’s what Jared and I thought for sure. We had so many plans this year for our personal life, our travels, and our online business. But in the blink of an eye that all changed, and now we’re all living a new reality, and wondering what 2020 has in store for us next.

Unfortunately, like everything else in our lives, COVID-19 has also had a huge impact on the travel therapy job market. At the beginning of 2020 before we really knew COVID-19 was going to be a problem, we were already dealing with some setbacks in the job market. But in this Guide to Pursuing Travel Therapy in 2020 from January 1st, we were at least hopeful things would turn around and get better. But unfortunately, they got much, much worse.

We’ve written a couple recent articles about how COVID-19 has affected the travel therapy job market in general, and more specifically the impact for new grads interested in traveling. We’ve also done several videos on this topic, providing updates each week on how the job market is looking.

But today we really want to address how COVID-19 is specifically affecting the job market for physical therapy and occupational therapy assistants (PTA’s & COTA’s).

The Travel PTA & COTA Job Market

Unfortunately, the job market for PTA’s & COTA’s has undoubtedly been impacted the worst. At this time, travel jobs for PTA’s & COTA’s are almost nonexistent.

To better put this in perspective, we need to take a look back at the job market even before COVID. In 2019 and previous years, jobs were always a little harder to come by for PTA’s and COTA’s compared with PT, OT, and SLP. Why? Who knows, probably lots of factors. But one reason could be more competition. Possibly more PTA’s & COTA’s out there due to less years of school required for the degree vs. the 6-7 years for PT, OT, and SLP? It could also have to do with the high cost of staffing a traveler. Maybe facilities might need a PTA or COTA, but they could get by without one, and aren’t willing to pay the high price tag to bring a traveler on. Whereas, they could not get by without an evaluating therapist, so they in some cases are forced to list a travel opening for a PT, OT, SLP. I’m sure there are other factors, but these are some that come to mind.

Then, with jobs already being more scarce in general for Travel PTA’s & COTA’s, next we had the lovely Medicare changes of PDPM & PDGM come along in the fall of 2019 and early 2020. This had a huge impact on all jobs for all disciplines, but with already a low number of travel jobs for assistants, any sort of drop was catastrophic to the job availability. This left many perm and travel PTA’s & COTA’s without work in late 2019 & early 2020. In terms of job numbers, we had been hearing that at any given time, there were less than 10 jobs for PTA and 10 jobs for COTA in the entire country! Talk about low numbers and high competition.

So as you can see, leading up to COVID-19, travel jobs for assistants were already in jeopardy. Many PTA’s & COTA’s who were travelers decided to stop traveling because it was too difficult to find travel jobs and they needed to find more stable income, so they went perm or found a PRN job back home to ride out the storm.

But then, the storm kept on coming. When COVID-19 hit, it again affected the therapy job market for both perm and travel jobs. So an already scarce job market for travel PTA & COTA jobs became basically nonexistent, with 0-5 job openings at any given time nationwide.

So, What Does This Mean for PTA’s & COTA’s Wanting to Travel?

So you might be reading this and thinking, well yeah there aren’t many jobs nationwide, but there also aren’t many jobs in my area, and I’m ready for a change — so I might as well give it a shot!

But, there’s a lot more we need to unfold here to really understand what these odds mean for you if you try to pursue traveling right now.

Already you can imagine, a low number of jobs means high competition for those jobs. Competition means, if you’re a new grad or have limited experience, your profile gets thrown right out the window compared to PTA’s & COTA’s with more years of experience and more variety of experience in different settings and skill sets.

What this really means is, if you try to persist and apply anyway, you’re going to be wasting a lot of your time trying anxiously to apply for jobs, putting in a lot of energy, effort, and worry, only to likely be denied. Believe us when we say, sitting around getting your hopes up about a job opening, waiting for a call, hoping for an interview, and being let down, takes a huge toll on you mentally and emotionally. It also can greatly add up in the long run if you wait weeks and weeks hoping for a travel job, when during those weeks and weeks you could’ve been getting a paycheck at a PRN or perm job locally. Even if the paycheck pales in comparison to that of the travel job, you’ve got to take into account the opportunity cost of missing out on weeks of pay while waiting for something better.

Okay but maybe you’ve got experience and you’re thinking to yourself: “well I’ve got a lot of experience and maybe I’ll be one of the top 5 candidates who applies for the 0-5 jobs available, so I’ll for sure get it.” But, herein lies another hurdle with travel jobs. Those 0-5 jobs could pop up randomly in any of the 50 states. Lately, there is no rhyme or reason to states that tend to have more jobs than others. Historically, California was the only state you could truly bet on to have a consistent number of jobs for assistants. But lately that isn’t even the case. And with the way the travel job market is, with such high competition, you have to have the license already, or you won’t get the job. They won’t wait on you to get the license, they’ll just give the job offer to someone who already does. So unless you plan to get licensed in 10-20+ states to increase your odds, it’s going to be very unlikely to see the job pop up in a state in which you’re already licensed, much less in a particular area you want to go, in a particular setting where you want to practice, and at a particular facility that sounds good to you.

To put the dreadful icing on the poisonous cake, things are so up in the air right now in our country, that facilities are really uncertain of their staffing needs. Nobody knows right now if things will continue to get better, and therefore facilities will go back to normal caseloads and normal staffing needs, or if they’ll stay how they are now, or if they’ll decline even further if states have to resume lockdowns. So, in terms of places trying to decide if they need to staff a travel therapist, they could post a job opening for a travel PTA or COTA, but within a couple weeks change their mind and cancel the contract. (Or, they might suddenly get an applicant to take the job permanently, due to high competition for jobs nationwide, and cancel the traveler’s contract). There’s nothing worse than getting your hopes up about a job, accepting the job, uprooting your life to move there and set up housing, only to have the job cancelled and have wasted all your precious time, energy, and money!

So What Do We Recommend?

I know this is disappointing and this post is full of doom and gloom. But when it comes to people’s lives and career choices, we want to be honest and lay out the facts.

As you can tell from everything we’ve discussed above, this is a truly terrible time to try to pursue travel jobs as a PTA or COTA. Because of all the challenges, we recommend that PTA’s and COTA’s stay put locally for now. Either stay at your current job, or try to find a perm or PRN job nearby.

Even if the job options are slim in your area, you’re honestly not going to be better off trying to go to a new area. Trust us when we say, the job options for PTA’s and COTA’s are slim there too. And, you’re going to spend a lot of time and money to likely be let down.

If you’re not seeing many job listings posted in your area, try cold calling, meaning just pick up the phone and call around to see if any facilities need help. Sell yourself and your skill set, and offer flexibility. These facilities are scrambling right now and don’t know what to do in terms of staffing. Be willing to work flexible hours in the hopes that it’ll turn into something more as things pick up. Be willing to take a little bit of a pay cut, because it’s better than making no money at all.

If you’re unable to find PTA or COTA jobs locally, you might consider finding work in another capacity for a little while. Unfortunately we know a lot of therapists (this includes PT’s, SLP’s, OT’s, COTA’s and PTA’s) who are working in different capacities right now to ride out the storm.

And if you’re really finding yourself unable to find work at all right now, see if you’re eligible to file for unemployment to at least get you through a few weeks or few months without work.

The world is a crazy place right now, and none of us know when things will start to get better. But, in the meantime, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get yourself and your family by.

Again, we’re sorry that this post is not more uplifting and hopeful. But based on watching the trends for months and talking to dozens of people in the travel therapy world, we feel it’s important to lay out the facts and let you know what you’re faced with, so you can make informed decisions about your career. We wish you the best of luck during these trying times, and we hope to be able to deliver better news in the coming months!

 


 

Written by Traveling Physical Therapist – Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

Whitney Eakin headshot

Is Travel Therapy a Good Option for New Grads During COVID-19?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had dozens of new grad and soon-to-be new grad therapists reach out to us asking if now is a good time to start traveling as a new grad. This happens every year during May when the bulk of therapists graduate, but with all the uncertainty currently and full time therapy work being difficult to come by in some locations, there’s been much more interest in travel therapy than normal this year. Unfortunately, when there is uncertainty in healthcare, it is rarely a good thing for the travel therapy market, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

While travel therapy has historically been a good career choice over the last decade for many therapists, including new grad therapists, things have really been shaken up recently. Let’s dive in to why travel therapy has been affected and whether or not it’s a good time for new grads to be trying travel therapy.

Travel Therapy During the Pandemic

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread impact on our world, including US healthcare jobs. “Uncertainty” is the buzz word as we all wait and see what will happen as the situation continues to evolve worldwide.

A big reason why uncertainty impacts the travel therapy job market to such a large degree has to do with the cost of hiring travel therapists incurred by facilities. Travel therapists can be significantly more expensive than full time and PRN staff, so in a situation where caseloads could suddenly decrease, many facilities don’t want to risk spending money on a traveler that they may end up not needing. Instead, they’ll make do with current staff while supplementing with PRN or offering overtime to full time therapists if needed, and wait out the uncertainty.

In the past two months we’ve seen hundreds of travel contracts ended early or cancelled before they even started due to fluctuations in caseloads in all settings. There has been a significant decrease in the number of new travel job openings due to facilities not hiring. With that being said, settings have certainly not all been affected evenly. Outpatient and school contracts have been the hardest hit by contract cancellations and job cuts, with home health, acute care, and SNF jobs impacted to a lesser degree. Even in the lesser impacted settings, COVID has still caused problems. This is primarily due to the fact that elective surgeries have been limited or cancelled altogether for almost two months now. Fewer elective surgeries means fewer patients across the board.

Flooding the Market

Less patients means less demand for therapists and subsequent layoffs across the board, not only in the form of travel therapy job cancellations but also for permanent full time staff. Some of the laid off permanent therapists are unable to find work in their area right now and are turning to travel therapy for some respite during tremulous times. This is bad news for current and prospective new grad travel therapists.

The combination of previously permanent therapists, new grads, and current travelers whose contracts have come to an end or were ended prematurely all looking for travel contracts at the same time, has caused the travel therapy market to get flooded with therapists searching for jobs. This flood of job seekers, combined with a reduction in overall jobs, has led to significant over-saturation of the travel therapy job market.

The impact is evident in the number of open travel contracts available and the declining pay rates offered on those contracts. The recruiters and companies that we work closely with are all reporting about 10 times less travel therapy jobs currently for PTs and OTs when compared to earlier this year before the pandemic. When comparing to the travel market at this time last year, the numbers look even more grim.

The travel jobs that are available are getting many more applicants submitted than normal and are closing very quickly. In some cases jobs will get to the maximum number of applicant submissions in a matter of a couple hours. With facilities getting so many submissions for their available travel contracts, a natural consequence is reductions in the bill rates offered, meaning lower pay for travel therapists. In nominal terms, this manifests as a reduction of about $100-$200/week on average for many of the open jobs.

What Does This Mean for New Grads?

Due to a minimal number of travel therapy jobs open at any given time currently, higher competition for those few jobs, along with lower pay, we can definitely say that now certainly isn’t the best time for new grads to begin travel therapy careers.

If at all possible, our recommendation right now would be for new grads to consider finding a full time or PRN position for a few months to a year to save some money and get some experience until things improve.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to consider travel jobs as an option and be on the lookout for travel job opportunities, but we encourage you to keep your options open and consider all job opportunities available to you, including perm and PRN locally.

Actions to Take for Those Dedicated to Pursuing Travel Therapy as a New Grad Currently

If you’re set on starting out as a new grad travel therapist despite the current environment, there are a few things you can do to have the best chance of finding a contract.

  1. Be willing to accept lower pay now than during normal times.
    • We’re always advocates of being informed and understanding how travel therapy pay works prior to jumping in, in order to avoid inadvertently taking low ball offers from non-reputable companies and recruiters. However, in this situation, you should expect for pay to be lower due to the declining bill rates mentioned above. Unfortunately, even though we normally recommend avoiding any pay rates less than $1,500/wk after taxes, there are some contracts paying travel PTs in the $1,300/week range right now that are still getting tons of submissions.
  2. Work with at least a few different good companies and recruiters.
    • This is more vital than ever right now. Having a few recruiters from different companies helping you search for jobs leads to more options and a better chance of finding a travel contract that will work for you. If you need help finding reputable companies and recruiters, fill out our recruiter request form, and we’ll match you with some that should work well for you.
  3. Be more flexible on travel assignment setting and location.
    • In the past, Whitney and I have been able to find consistent contracts close to each other in the states and settings that we prefer. Currently that just isn’t possible. To have a chance of finding a travel contract in the coming weeks (possibly months) as a new grad, it is important to be lenient on location and setting as much as possible. In the future when the travel therapy market picks up again, you can go back to being more selective with regards to setting and location. And even better, by that time you will have experience under your belt and will be more competitive when applying to the setting and location of your choice.

The Future of Travel Therapy

With states beginning to open back up and elective surgeries beginning to commence again across the country, the need for therapists will undoubtedly pick back up, and with that, we anticipate the travel therapy job market will improve. In addition to patients undergoing elective surgeries, patients that have become deconditioned due to COVID will require skilled therapy to a larger degree than before in SNFs, home health, outpatient, and inpatient rehab facilities. It’s hard to say exactly how long it will be before the travel therapy job market gets back to normal completely, but in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen things starting to trend upward, which is a good sign. Once demand picks back up and travel jobs are more prevalent, increases in travel pay back to normal levels should follow.

We are optimistic that demand will increase in the coming months and travel therapy will once again be a great option for new grads, like it was for us back when we started traveling as PTs after graduation in 2015!

If you have any questions or need help getting started, feel free to contact us. We’ve helped well over 1,000 new and current travel therapists to be better informed over the past few years! Best of luck & stay safe!

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and travels with his girlfriend and fellow travel PT, Whitney. Together they mentor other current and aspiring travel therapists.