Should You Pursue Travel Therapy as an Independent Contractor?

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT


“Couldn’t I just cut out the middle man and negotiate my own contracts?”

Have you ever thought about this before? Have you considered trying to set up your own travel therapy contracts instead of working through a travel agency? If so, you’re not alone.

Whether to take travel therapy contracts through a travel company or to work as an independent contractor through a business entity as a 1099 employee is a question we’ve received quite often. This is a very valid question, considering we all know that travel companies keep a percentage (sometimes a significant amount) of the bill rate that the facility pays the travel company.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with bill rates, then this article should give you baseline knowledge to better understand the calculations that I’ll go through to compare taking jobs through a travel company or as an independent contractor.

Financially, on the surface the answer seems obvious, but upon investigation it gets much more complex as to which choice is more lucrative. Since I’m a finance nerd and all for optimizing income, I initially planned to eventually go this route myself, cutting out the middle man so to speak in order to keep more of the hard earned travel pay. I dug deep into the tax laws and ran calculations to see just how much more I would actually be able to make as an independent contractor instead of taking jobs though a travel company.

What I found surprised me and made me decide it wasn’t worth the hassle, and since then Whitney and I have continued to take travel contracts through travel companies. Let’s explore how I came to this decision and help give you some food for thought as to whether this is a possible option for you, complete with plenty of math! 🙂

Pros and Cons of working as an Independent Contractor on Travel Assignments

The main benefit of working as an independent contractor, and the reason that just about everyone that goes this route decides to do it, is to keep the entire bill rate like I mentioned above and make more money! Instead of the travel company keeping 20-25% of the bill rate, you get to keep it all! What’s not to like about that?

The downsides will vary from person to person, but generally include: establishing a business entity (most people seem to prefer an LLC for this to reduce potential personal liability), more hassle finding assignments (you have to do this all on your own of course), writing your own contracts or being able to understand the ins and outs of contracts written by the facility, being responsible for getting your own health insurance, being responsible for getting your own liability insurance, having to pay self-employment tax on income, and having no one to advocate for you. Let’s explore each of these downsides individually.

  • Establishing a business entity: For this, it is best to consult a professional for advice on which business entity would be best for your situation. As much as I hate spending extra money, if I was going to go the independent contracting route this is an area where I wouldn’t cut corners. Being sure that you’re doing everything by the book is not only the best way to avoid future issues, but will also help you sleep better at night.
  • More hassle finding assignments: When working with a recruiter, you will be presented with potential jobs options from their clients (facilities) with current therapist needs. As an independent contractor, you have to do all of this on your own which usually involves “cold calling” clinics in the area that you’re looking for a job, or looking at permanent position job openings in the area and reaching out to them to see if they would consider a traveler. This is going to be more time consuming than having the jobs presented to you by a recruiter. In addition, some facilities that need travelers often choose to work with only one specific travel company to help streamline the process, which means those jobs might not be available to you even if you contact them directly and are a good fit.
  • Writing your own contracts: When you find a facility that is willing to hire you as a traveler, you’ll either need to write your own contract to have them sign or possibly sign a contract that the facility has. This is an area where you want to be careful since legal contracts can have very specific wording, and it’s easy to miss something if you don’t pay attention. As an upside, this would probably only be an issue for the first couple of contracts as an independent contractor since you’ll almost certainly become more proficient with writing and reading contracts over time.
  • Being responsible for your own health, dental, and vision insurance: This is a big one. As an independent contractor your yearly pay will almost certainly be high enough to disqualify you for ACA tax credits, which means you’ll be responsible for the full premium amount if you get health insurance through the marketplace. The travel company pays for a portion of the usual premium for us, which is why the company sponsored plans are so much cheaper than plans through the marketplace.
  • Being responsible for your own liability insurance: This is a relatively minor cost but not something to overlook. Travel companies provide liability insurance for their travelers, but if you are working as an independent contractor then you’ll have to get this on your own. In general this shouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars per year.
  • Paying self-employment tax on income: This is another big one! Self-employment tax is the money paid toward Medicare and Social Security on your behalf. This amounts to 15.3% of your income right off the top, and you can’t avoid it even with retirement account contributions! When working as an employee through a travel company, they would pay for half of this tax on your behalf with you only paying 7.65% (denoted as FICA taxes on your pay stub), but when working as an independent contractor you’re responsible for the whole shebang. For more detail on this tax, check out this link.
  • Having no advocate: Your recruiter (as long as they are good) is a lifeline for you while on assignment. If you have issues with a facility, then they can be the one to have the tough talks with the facility regarding fixing things if you aren’t comfortable doing that. If a contract goes exactly according to plan, then this may not be important at all, but if you end up at a facility where things aren’t ideal then this could prove to be very valuable and significantly reduce your headache.

Yeah, Yeah… But More Money!

I hear you! Despite all the “cons” mentioned above, I was ready to accept all of that and still work as an independent contractor if it meant an extra few hundred dollars per week, and this may be what you’re thinking as well.

However, I was very disappointed to find out that for my and Whitney’s situation, the financial benefit was actually very little or even nonexistent in some cases!

How can that be if the travel company isn’t keeping 20-25% of the bill rate? That’s where the math comes in.

Before we jump into the calculations though, let me explain how that 20-25% extra can quickly evaporate.

  • Stipends (Per Diems): First I want to make it clear here that I’m not a tax professional. The information below is just my understanding of the tax laws as I’ve read them and from what I’ve learned from consulting with tax professionals. Always consult with a professional before making a decision based on what is written here! TravelTax is a wonderful resource for more information. With that being said. The big thing that makes being a travel therapist so lucrative are the stipends for those travelers who meet the requirements for maintaining a proper tax home (the vast majority). The biggest portion of those stipends is almost always for housing. On average our housing stipend has been in the $600-$700/week range while traveling depending on the location. When working through a travel company, this amount can be received even if your actual travel housing doesn’t cost doesn’t equal the full amount. While working as an independent contractor, even though you can write off your housing expense, it can only be for the actual cost of the housing incurred. What that means is that if you find low cost housing at your travel assignment, you’ll only be able to deduct the actual cost of the housing instead of being able to receive the much larger housing stipend that you would when working through a travel company. This is the single biggest reason why working as an independent contractor doesn’t make sense for Whitney and me. The most expensive housing that we’ve had to date on an assignment was $900/month, with the average being closer to $650/month. Divided between the two of us, we’d only be able to write off an average of $325/month each for those housing costs if we worked as independent contractors versus the $600-$700/week ($2,500-$3,000/month) that we each get when working through a travel company. Luckily, the full meal and incidental stipends would still apply to independent contractors just like they do for travelers working through a travel company, so no difference there. But, depending on your average cost of housing on assignment, missing that full housing stipend can be huge as we’ll see in the calculations later.
  • Self-Employment tax: As mentioned above, this amounts to an additional 7.65% of income paid off the top in taxes when working as an independent contractor compared to when working through a travel company. This becomes even more significant than it appears at first glance due to the higher taxable pay as an independent contractor.
  • Health insurance: Paying the full marketplace premium for insurance is going to be much more expensive than the insurance offered through a travel company in almost all cases. For example, on my last contract my health, dental, and vision insurance premiums through the travel company we used cost me $24/week. For comparable coverage purchased through the marketplace, I would have to pay about $120/week. That’s over $400/month more for insurance when working as an independent contractor!

Onto the Numbers

Now that we see some of the reasons why the pay actually received as an independent contractor may not be as high we initially anticipated, let’s do some calculations to see if the actual difference would be worth the other “cons” mentioned above.

I’m going to use my situation on my most recent contract as an example, but keep in mind that this will differ for everyone depending on your own variables. I don’t know what the actual bill rate for that contract was since this is usually not disclosed by the travel company, but I’ll go through two examples using a $60/hour and a $65/hour bill rate which seem to be pretty typical on the east coast in our experience. I’ll also use 25% as the travel company margin, which would typically be on the high end but it depends on the specific company and contract.

The Scenario: 30 year old male, working 40 hours per week, for 48 weeks per year, with both the contract state and the home state being Virginia, working in Fredericksburg. Housing cost of $800/month, split with Whitney ($400/month each).

Working through a travel company taking 25% margin from $60/hour bill rate

$60/hour bill rate – 25% margin = $45/hour total compensation to traveler

  • $20/hour taxable ($800/week gross)
  • $25/hour nontaxable ($1,000/week broken down into $385/week for meals and incidentals stipend and $615/week for housing stipend)

Total yearly taxable pay based on 48 weeks per year worked: $38,500

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $7,665

Total yearly (taxable hourly pay only) after taxes: $30,835

$30,835/48 weeks = $642 taxable per week after taxes

+ $1,000 per week stipends (untaxed)

=$1,642/week take home after taxes

– $24/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,618/week take home pay after insurance premiums

Working as an independent contractor making $60/hour bill rate

$60/hour bill rate (all taxable) * 40 hours  per week * 48 weeks per year = $115,200 total pay received (before taxes)

Meals and incidentals: $385/week tax deduction

Housing: $400/month rent tax deduction (actual expense incurred)

$115,200 – ($385 * 48 weeks) – ($400 * 11 months) – ($5,760 insurance premiums for 11 months) = $86,560 after deductions

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $30,080 (of which $13,244 is self-employment tax)

Total yearly after taxes: $115,200 – $30,080 = $85,120

$85,120 / 48 weeks = $1,773/week take home after taxes

– $120/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,653/week take home after insurance premiums

As you can see here, as an independent contractor in the situation, weekly take home pay would only be about $35 more per week when everything is said and done!

 

Now let’s look at the same exact scenario, but with a maxed out 401k each year in both cases since that will help reduce the taxable income (on everything except self-employment taxes) which is very beneficial with such a high income as an independent contractor.

Working through a travel company taking 25% margin from $60/hour bill rate with maxed out 401k contribution ($19,000)

$60/hour bill rate – 25% margin = $45/hour total compensation to traveler

  • $20/hour taxable ($800/week gross)
  • $25/hour nontaxable ($1,000/week broken down into $385/week for meals and incidentals stipend and $615/week for housing stipend)

Total yearly taxable based on 48 weeks per year worked: $38,500

401k Contribution: $19,000 (reduces taxable income)

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $4,344

Total yearly after taxes: $34,156

$712 taxable per week after taxes

+ $1,000 per week stipends

=$1,712/week take home after taxes

– $24/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,688/week take home pay after insurance premiums

Working as an independent contractor making $60/hour bill rate with maxed out 401k contribution ($19,000)

$60/hour bill rate * 40 hours  per week * 48 weeks per year = $115,200 total pay received (before taxes)

Meals and incidentals: $385/week deduction

Housing: $400/month rent deduction (actual expense incurred)

$115,200 – ($385 * 48 weeks) – ($400 * 11 months) – ($5,760 insurance premiums for 11 months) = $86,560 after deductions

401k Contribution: $19,000 (reduces taxable income)

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $24,808 (of which $13,244 is self-employment tax)

Total yearly after taxes: $115,200 – $24,808 = $90,392

$90,392 / 48 weeks = $1,883/week take home after taxes

– $120/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,763/week take home after insurance premiums

As we can see here, maxing out a 401k account helps to reduce taxes on the income, which benefits the independent contractor more than the traveler working through a travel company.

So in this scenario after the 401k contributions, the independent contractor would come out $75/week ahead of the traveler working through a travel company.

If I did ever change my mind a pursue traveling as an independent contractor, I would definitely take advantage of the tax deferred savings associated with a 401k to reduce the tax burden on the higher taxable pay. An extra $75/week would amount to only about $300 more per month or $3,600 more per year. That’s still not worth the “cons” mentioned earlier in my opinion.

 

The pay difference between working as an independent contractor compared to working through a travel company only narrows further as the bill rate increases. This is because as the bill rate increases, the housing stipend can also be increased. This is of course as long as the GSA allows room for additional money applied to the housing stipend without going over the limits for the area that you’re traveling in. In the case of the independent contractor, their housing price doesn’t change just because the bill rate is higher, so the deduction for housing stays the same.

To illustrate this, let’s run the same calculations using the same scenario with a $65/hour bill rate.

Working through a travel company taking 25% margin from $65/hour bill rate

$65/hour bill rate – 25% margin = $48.75/hour total compensation to traveler

  • $20/hour taxable ($800/week gross)
  • $28.75/hour nontaxable ($1,150/week broken down into $385/week for meals and incidentals stipend and $765/week for housing stipend)

Total yearly taxable based on 48 weeks per year worked: $38,500

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $7,665

Total yearly after taxes: $30,835

$642 taxable per week after taxes

+ $1,150 per week stipends

= $1,792/week take home after taxes

– $24/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,768/week take home pay after insurance premiums

Working as an independent contractor making $65/hour bill rate

$65/hour bill rate * 40 hours  per week * 48 weeks per year = $124,800 total pay received

Meals and incidentals: $385/week deduction

Housing: $400/month rent deduction (actual expense incurred)

$124,800 – ($385 * 48 weeks) – ($400 * 11 months) – ($5,760 insurance premiums for 11 months)= $96,160 after deductions

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $34,246 (of which $14,712 is self-employment tax)

Total yearly after taxes: $124,800 – $34,246 = $90,554

$90,554 / 48 weeks = $1,887/week take home after taxes

– $120/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,766/week take home after insurance premiums

With a $65/hour bill rate and no 401k contributions to reduce the taxable income, the independent contractor would actually come out with $2/week LESS after taxes in this situation!

 

Now let’s see how that would change by maxing out a 401k account.

Working through a travel company taking 25% margin from $65/hour bill rate with maxed out 401k contribution ($19,000)

$65/hour bill rate – 25% margin = $48.75/hour total compensation to traveler

  • $20/hour taxable ($800/week gross)
  • $28.75/hour nontaxable ($1,150/week broken down into $385/week for meals and incidentals stipend and $765/week for housing stipend)

Total yearly taxable based on 48 weeks per year worked: $38,500

401k Contribution: $19,000 (reduces taxable income)

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $4,344

Total yearly after taxes: $34,156

$712 taxable per week after taxes

+ $1,150 per week stipends

= $1,862/week take home after taxes

– $24/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,838/week take home pay after insurance premiums

Working as an independent contractor making $65/hour bill rate with maxed out 401k contribution ($19,000)

$65/hour bill rate * 40 hours  per week * 48 weeks per year = $124,800 total pay received

Meals and incidentals: $385/week deduction

Housing: $400/month rent deduction (actual expense incurred)

$124,800 – ($385 * 48 weeks) – ($400 * 11 months) – ($5,760 insurance premiums for 11 months)= $96,160 after deductions

401k Contribution: $19,000 (reduces taxable income)

Total yearly taxes (determined using this calculator): $28,940 (of which $14,712 is self-employment tax)

Total yearly after taxes: $124,800 – $28,940 = $95,860

$95,860 / 48 weeks = $1,997/week take home after taxes

– $120/week health, dental, vision insurance premium

=$1,877/week take home after insurance premiums

After the reduction in taxable income through the 401k contributions in this final example, the independent contractor would come out ahead by a whopping $39!

Additional Considerations

  • In the example above, I did not account for the cost of liability insurance in the independent contractor example, because this cost is negligible in most situations and just adds further complexity to the calculations.
  • In addition, I did not factor in reimbursements for travel expenses that most travel companies will give in addition to the weekly pay. The reason for this was that an independent contractor would be able to deduct that expense as well, and those are likely to cancel each other out, especially in the scenario I laid out above where travel to and from the assignment location from my tax home was only a few hours each way. If this had been a move across the country, and the travel company didn’t reimburse those full expenses, the independent contractor would at least be able to deduct those beginning and ending travel expenses, whereas the traveler working through a company wouldn’t be able to due to the tax law changes last year in The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). That would skew things more in favor of the independent contractor, but by how much would depend on the actual beginning and ending travel expenses incurred.
  • I did not include the 20% pass through deduction that was also part of the TCJA last year due to uncertainty whether that would apply to all travelers in this situation. If this does indeed apply to your business entity as an independent contractor, then that extra 20% deduction would significantly improve the financial aspects of traveling as an independent contractor. Be sure to consult with a CPA on this deduction if you do decide to work as an independent contractor through your own business entity.
  • Single travelers that will be working in higher cost of living areas where housing costs are likely to be much more expensive will have a much higher deduction than in the above example for housing expenses incurred while working as an independent contractor. A much higher housing cost will tilt things more in favor of traveling as an independent contractor and is something that should be considered if this applies to you.
  • The higher taxable pay associated with working as an independent contractor will lead to much higher monthly student loan payments for anyone that has chosen to go with an income driven repayment plan. If you plan to pay your loans off as quickly as possible while traveling by making much larger payments, then this won’t affect you at all. If you plan to pay the minimum, save/invest the difference, and potentially go for 20-25 year student loan forgiveness, then this could be a big potential downside in going the independent contractor route, especially while on REPAYE and having half of the accumulated interest subsidized each month which is the case for me.

Conclusion

Cutting out the middle man and taking travel jobs as an independent contractor to make more money is certainly enticing, but upon investigation it proves to be more hassle and less lucrative than it appears at first glance.

The actual financial benefit of going this route can very drastically depending on the individual and his/her situation, but for Whitney and I, it does not seem to be worth it. This is only a path that I would personally consider if it meant an increase in at least $200/week after taxes, otherwise I don’t think that it’s worth the extra work involved. For us, it’s clear in the above scenarios that it would not be.

If you do decide to go the independent contractor route, maxing out pre-tax accounts (401k, traditional IRA, and HSA) all become ever more attractive options as a means to reduce taxable income and therefore significantly reduce taxes.

If you’ve worked as an independent contractor as a traveler in the past, we’d love to hear about your experience and if it differs from the cases I’ve laid out here. Let us know in the comments or send us a message.

If after all of this, you’ve decided that working as an independent contractor isn’t for you and would like recommendations for recruiters/companies that pay well and that we trust, then reach out to us here! Thanks for reading and I hope that this was helpful to you in deciding the best travel therapy path for you.

Questions to Ask a Travel Therapy Company and Recruiter

Written by: Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC


So if you’re looking into travel therapy, by now you may have figured out that you need to contact travel companies and decide who you want to work with. In general, we recommend therapists work with at least two to three companies, in order to give themselves the most job options. It’s a great idea to talk to a few different ones at first to get an idea of which recruiters you like and which companies you like. Once you’ve found a few good ones, you’ll have them as your main contacts when it’s time to look for jobs.

Just to clarify, having two to three you’re working with doesn’t mean you’re an employee or locked in yet! You’re only locked in once you take a job with one company, and then you’re just locked in for that assignment. After that, you’re back to being a free agent and can mix and mingle with all your recruiters for the next job search.

But what should you be looking for in these companies and recruiters? What questions do you need to ask them to find out if they’re any good? Are there red flags to watch out for with recruiters? These are questions we hear from many therapists who are just getting started looking into the travel world. So let’s dive in and cover some of the things you should consider and some questions you should ask!

Recruiters

*Ok some of these aren’t actually “questions to ask” more just things to consider!

  • Do you like them?
    • Yep, this is important, you should like them and get along well, because you’ll be talking to them a lot and depending on them to help you.
  • Are they responsive?
    • Getting back to you quickly via calls, texts, and/or emails is important, especially when it’s crunch time and you’re searching for a job!
  • Can you reach them after hours/on weekends?
    • We have to respect the recruiters’ personal lives and encourage them to have a work-life balance, but sometimes things come up outside of business hours (since, of course, we work during business hours too) and on weekends. It’s nice to know whether you can reach them by cell phone in case of an urgent situation.
  • Are they trustworthy?
    • You have to feel this one out a little over time, gauge whether they’re being open and honest with you, or whether they’re holding back information and being shady.
  • How much experience do they have?
    • Ask how long they’ve been a recruiter and how long they’ve been with that company. This may or may not be a huge deal breaker, because they’ve all got to start somewhere. But gauge how long they’ve been in the business, and if they’re newer, how much training they got and who trained them.
  • How many travelers do they work with at one time?
    • This can vary from 15 to 50 or more. Ask them how many they usually work with, and what happens if they feel like their desk is getting too busy and they have too many travelers.
  • Do they work with a team?
    • Some companies work as a team of recruiters, but most work independently. But figuring out who else is in the office and who covers for your recruiter if he/she is out is a good thing to know. Also building a relationship with the recruiter’s manager might not be a bad idea in case your recruiter is ever out.

Companies

  • What states/areas do they cover?
    • Find out what states and areas they staff, and if there are certain areas where they tend to have more jobs. Most agencies staff nationwide, but sometimes they’ll have more connections in a particular area.
  • Do they work with only therapists or other healthcare professionals too?
    • Some companies do only therapy, while others staff everything from nursing to imaging technicians. Typically, they will have different departments for different professions, such as have a separate nursing division that isn’t involved with the therapy division. Just something good to know and understand who your company and especially your recruiter specializes in working with.
  • Are they considered a “small,” “medium,” or “large” company?
    • This just helps you understand what their overhead is like and how that might affect pay, as well as how their company runs and their job availability. For example, a bigger company may have more jobs but lower pay; a smaller company may have less jobs but higher pay. But it varies greatly!
  • What are their benefits like?
    • You’ll want to compare the benefits packages for each company. Here are some key things to look for:
      • Insurance: When does it start? Does it carry over between contracts? What company is it with? Do they have different tiers of coverage? How much is taken out weekly from your paycheck?
      • 401k: Do they offer it? Do they offer a match? When can you start contributing? When does the match start? When is the match “fully vested”? (meaning, if you leave the company after 1 or 2 contracts, do you keep the match, or do they take it back?)
      • PTO: Is there any opportunity to build PTO?
      • Others: Do they offer any additional perks, such as life insurance, disability, etc.
  • Do they offer reimbursements?
    • Some companies offer reimbursements for things like state licensing, CEUs, and travel to/from facilities. However, some companies have this just come directly out of your pay package for that particular contract, so you really end up with the exact same amount of money, just divided up differently. Whereas some companies have a different department and budget allocated for these reimbursements, so while it probably affects the company’s overall pay to all travelers, it does not directly affect your paycheck on an individual assignment. So if they say yes they will reimburse, ask where it’s coming from.
  • Do they offer CEU access?
    • Some companies instead of reimbursing you for CEU’s will give you online access to CEUs via a website where they have a subscription, so you can earn CEUs online for free while on contract with them.
  • What does an average pay package look like?
    • It’s important to find out what a normal range is that they see for your discipline. For example, they might say anywhere from $1500-1800/week. You might want to see how they break this pay down as well, including what numbers they use for hourly taxable pay (Ex: $20/hr) and how they break down your stipend/per diem money (Ex: hourly, or weekly). This is all a little more advanced, but you’ll learn as you go along and work with a few different recruiters and see how they break things down.
  • Do they offer a 40 hour guarantee?
    • This may depend on the company itself or the client they’re working with (the facility). Find out if they can secure a 40 hour guarantee for your contract, and if so, what does it cover? Does it include only if census is low, or does it also cover holidays and clinic closures due to inclement weather?
  • Where do their jobs come from?
    • Do they have a lot of direct clients, or do they mostly rely on Vendor Management Systems (VMS)? This is also a little advanced, but it’s good to understand where their jobs are coming from. All companies will have access to the jobs on the VMS systems usually, so companies that rely heavily on that will tend to have most of the same jobs.
  • Do they “cold call” if they’re having trouble finding jobs for you?
    • This is an important thing for them to be willing to do for you if they’re unable to find jobs in the particular area you’re looking for. “Cold calling” means they’re willing to call around to facilities in the area or ones they’ve worked with in the past, regardless of whether they have any job openings listed at that time. This puts them, and you, ahead of the game and can dig up some good job options that may not be posted yet.

These are some of the key things we feel it’s important to consider and ask when looking into travel companies and recruiters. Many companies will be similar in terms of jobs they offer and benefits, so sometimes your recruiter will make a big difference for you. You want to find a couple of recruiters you really like and trust, and build a good relationship with them. This will help you to have a great travel experience!

If you’d like to know the companies and recruiters we recommend, please reach out to us and we’d be happy to help you!


Whitney

Author: Whitney Eakin, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Athletic Trainer, and Travel Physical Therapist since 2015

Travel Therapy: The Path to Financial Freedom (Guest Post)

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

I recently wrote an article that was featured on the Covalent Careers (New Grad Physical Therapy) website, which provides resources for PT, OT, and SLP. The title of my article is “Travel PT: The Path to Financial Freedom,” and I discuss how I have used Travel PT as a means to improve my financial future.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

With tuition prices continuing to increase each year, it’s no surprise that the amount of student debt that therapists are graduating with continues to rise as well. I talk to students and new grads every day through my site that are upset about the logistics involved with paying off six-figure student loan debt, while also doing their best to build a life after grad school. Some services, such as Fitbux, offer assistance with determining a plan to handle this debt as a new grad. Fitbux is a wonderful resource for developing the most optimal plan for getting to the zero debt finish line, and having a plan is a vital part of the process. But besides having a sound financial plan, another vital aspect is optimizing income. There are many ways to increase your income when coming out of school, including working multiple jobs or opening your own cash-based practice, but in my opinion, the easiest (and most fun) path to financial freedom is pursuing travel therapy contracts. …

You can check out the full article at: 

https://covalentcareers.com/resources/travel-pt-path-financial-freedom/

A big thanks to Covalent Careers for featuring me on their site!

If you have questions about getting started on your career in travel therapy, please send us a message and we will be happy to help you along the way!

Happy Holidays from Travel Therapy Mentor!

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC


Having time off during the holiday season to spend with friends and family can be difficult for healthcare professionals since healthcare is an essential business that must go on despite what day it is. Hospitals and nursing homes don’t close for holidays, and the patients that we care for at those facilities still need us.

As traveling healthcare professionals, we may sometimes be able to have more control over our schedules and be able to plan for time off, but that isn’t always the case. And, whether we have to work or not, it may also be difficult to see family and friends depending what part of the country we’re in.

We here at Travel Therapy Mentor wanted to let you know what the holiday season looks like for us this year and in years past, as many of you can probably relate!


Travis and Julia

Travis and Julia recently on their trip to Hawaii

Travel therapy mentor Travis and his fiancee Julia, both physical therapists, will be spending this Christmas with Julia’s family in Arizona. They are fortunate to both have Christmas day off this year, with Julia working in outpatient and Travis at a Skilled Nursing Facility. However, they both had work on Christmas Eve (Monday) and will have to work the rest of the week after Christmas.

This Winter, they chose to arrange contracts independently (not through a travel company) near Phoenix, AZ which is where they currently call home and plan to return PRN to these locations in the future. So they are not on what we might call a “traditional” travel assignment currently.  But, this arrangement worked well for them for the next several months, and it also allowed them to be near Julia’s family this holiday season while still continuing to work. They will not however get to see Travis’s parents who will be in Alabama this Christmas.

In years past, the two have not always spent the holidays with family due to traveling for work. Last year, they spent Christmas together in South Carolina and made their own holiday dinner in their camper. They have been fortunate to never have to work (so far) on Christmas Day.

Travis and Julia are embracing the travel healthcare life, even if it means ever changing holiday traditions.

Travis and Julia’s Christmas Tree at their apartment in Phoenix – with a tree skirt made by grandma!

Whitney and Jared

Jared and Whitney in Hong Kong last week

Jared and I have had quite the unusual year and a very non-traditional schedule! We worked a travel physical therapy contract from January-July 2018, then we took off around the world for 5 months! We just returned to the U.S. on December 17th! We planned to continue to be off work until after the New Year so we could spend quality time with both of our families in Virginia for the holidays.

We are very fortunate to have a job that allows such flexibility, as long as you plan and save wisely. The only downside to our plan is that we have found it challenging to find jobs that start just after the New Year. Many travel therapists have similar plans, to finish up a contract before the holidays in order to be with family, then resume work after January 1st. In addition, many facilities have already secured therapists to work through the holidays and into January. This combination of factors has made jobs for January scarce. So as of now, we are unemployed indefinitely until we can find contracts to begin sometime in January. But we are fortunate that we have saved a significant amount, so a few extra weeks off work (on top of already 5 months off!) won’t bother us.

In years past, we have secured jobs in December that carried over through the new year, while asking for time off for the holidays as able. We have worked on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve before, but we’ve always managed to make it home to Virginia for Christmas Day, whether we asked off or the facility was closed. So far we’ve always been working in Virginia or North Carolina within driving distance of home during the holidays, and that has worked out well for us.

Jared and Whitney’s families in Virginia on Christmas Eve
Whitney with her sister and mom celebrating with extended family in NC

Being a travel therapist around the holidays can sometimes make it easier to be able to see family, but it can sometimes make it more challenging!

Our hearts go out to those of you working the holidays this year, those spending the holidays geographically far away family, and to the patients who would love to be home with family as well!

Happy Holidays from us here at Travel Therapy Mentor!

What Kind of Travel Therapist Will You Be?

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC


The world of travel therapy is an exciting one. There are so many options and possibilities as a travel therapist. We as U.S. healthcare professionals are fortunate to have this as an avenue to travel down, so to speak, not only professionally but personally.

There are so many different types of travelers out there, from new grads, to those with a few years experience, those in the middle of their careers, or those close to retirement.

There are “career” travelers who do it forever and ever, amen, and never plan on settling down. There are “just testing it out” travelers who take a contract or two. There are ones who take travel contracts part of the year and work at home part of the year. There are “I just want to travel to places where my kids and grandkids live and make a little money along the way” travelers. And everywhere in between.

What kind of travel therapist will you be?

Let’s talk about some of the key reasons that many therapists choose to travel, what motivates and drives them… (but, of course, most of us are driven by a combination of all these factors!) …and see where you can relate!

In it for the Money

Yes, yes, this is often the big one. Income. Paychecks. Most therapists hear that travel therapy can afford them higher income than a permanent position, and for many different circumstances this is enticing.

For those who need to pay down a high amount of student debt, more money can be the key to becoming debt free. For those with families, more money can mean a better lifestyle, or less time spent working and more time spent with family, or that one spouse may not have to work at all. And for just about anyone, more money means more options.

Lots of therapists travel solely for the purpose of making more money, and they will chase the highest paying contracts no matter what. For most, it’s some combination of money and other factors that drives them to choose travel therapy.

You can check out this article to better understand how travel therapy pay works and how you can earn more money as a travel therapist.

Are you planning to travel just for higher pay?

All about Schedule Flexibility

When you work as a travel therapist, you are a “contract” worker, and therefore you are only employed while on contract. This means you can be in control of when you work and when you take time off. Gone are the days of only having two weeks of vacation time or PTO!

For many, this allows a lot of flexibility to be able to spend more time with family for special events and holidays, or to take time off to travel for leisure. In addition, since most travelers make more money than they would at a traditional position, they can in most cases afford to take additional time off, while still making enough money to support their lifestyles.

For some, such as me and my boyfriend Jared, this could mean working part of the year and traveling internationally the other part of the year. We just finished a 5 month trip around the world, are taking additional time off for the holidays with family, and plan to take a new travel PT contract next month.

The possibilities for how you want your schedule and your life to look are endless as a travel therapist.

Do you plan to use travel therapy to take extended periods of time off?

Adventure Junkies

For many, the excitement of traveling around the country and having adventures in new places is what draws them to travel therapy.

Who else gets to go live in a new city, state, region for +/- 3 months, instead of just visiting for a few days or a week?

It’s amazing the experiences you can have when you’re living in a new area. Even the normal, mundane, day to day activities are exciting. New grocery store, new weekend farmer’s market, new gym, new local coffee shop, new dog park.

Not to mention hiking all the trails, exploring all the beaches, skiing all the slopes, hitting up the local events, trying out new breweries and wineries, and catching local bands. Plus so, so much more!

Adventure is just around the corner for travel therapists, and more therapists are discovering it all the time.

Are you dreaming of the adventures you can have as a travel therapist?

The Social Butterfly

Want to meet new people? Looking for friendships across the states? Looking to find love? Why not travel for work and open up your circle!

Becoming a travel therapist can give you lots of opportunities to meet new people. Whether it’s co-workers, new friends at the gym, a new church community, a volunteer group, or local “meet-ups” — the possibilities are endless if you’re willing to put yourself out there!

Of course, I’d be remiss to say that traveling always helps you make new friends. Some travelers can feel quite lonely in a new place. Sometimes building strong friendships in such a short time can be challenging, and sometimes locals are not willing to open their circle to a newcomer, especially someone so transient.

But, that’s not always the case, and quite often travel therapists can make amazing connections in each place they go! This can mean having a whole new “family” across the country, or even finding a group of people you love so much, you want to stay!

Are you searching for new connections?

The New Setting Hopper

Some therapists choose to use travel therapy to broaden their skill sets. As a traveler, you have the opportunity to hop from one setting to another and gain a wealth of experience.

Many therapists will choose to stick with one or a couple of their favorite settings, but many want to expand their resume and skill set. Travel therapy is the perfect opportunity for this. As long as the facility understands you may need some additional training if you do not have a lot of experience in that setting, and you feel confident and competent enough to work there, you can dip your foot into new settings to see what you think!

Travel therapy affords a rare opportunity to hop from one setting to another, an opportunity that most therapists would never get.

Do you want to try out new settings, without the commitment of a permanent position?

What Kind of Travel Therapist Will You Be?

Do any of the above reasons resonate with you? What do you see your travel life looking like? There are so many possibilities, and no two travel therapists are alike.

If you’re ready to get started in your travel therapy career and would like guidance and recommendations, please reach out to us! We would be happy to help mentor you on your travel journey!

Is Contributing to a Company 401k Worth it as a Travel Therapist?

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

What Makes Travel Therapy Different?

Travel therapists are in a unique position with respect to 401k accounts. When working with most travel healthcare companies, therapists will be eligible to contribute to the company sponsored 401k plan. The 401k benefit eligibility will vary company to company, but most companies provide it in some form. However, since many travelers switch between travel companies pretty frequently, it is a common concern whether contributing to the company 401k plan makes sense for them, or if it would just be additional hassle. Unsurprisingly, since most of my articles on FifthWheelPT are finance related, this is definitely one of the top five most common questions I get asked by current and prospective travelers. In addition to wanting to know if using the 401k plan is worth the hassle if switching between companies, I often hear that there is concern about what happens with account once the individual leaves the company or stops contributing to the account.

I hope to shed some light on my thoughts about 401k plans for travelers in this post, but I do not intend this to be specific advice for any of you. This is just what I’ve done and what works for me, but everyone’s situation is different, so be sure to do your own research on the topic as well.

What is a 401k?

First let’s cover the basics of what a traditional 401k plan is and why one would choose to contribute to it in the first place. Most travel companies don’t offer a Roth 401k option, so we can skip over that for now, but if you’re interested in my thoughts on Roth vs. Traditional accounts, you can check that out here.

A traditional 401k is a retirement account that is offered by an employer and allows the employee to contribute pre-tax money to the account from each pay check. The amount contributed is up to the employee, but it is usually based on a percentage of the employee’s taxable income. Since the money isn’t taxed when it’s contributed, it’s able to grow in the account tax free for however long it remains in the account. When withdrawals are made (usually in retirement), the money withdrawn each year is then taxed along with any other earnings (social security, investment income, rental income, etc.). The big benefit of this account is that it allows you to contribute money while working and earning a lot, therefore in a higher tax bracket, and instead paying taxes on the money in retirement while (hopefully) in a lower tax bracket. The money also grows more quickly in a 401k than in a regular investment (brokerage) account since the amount that would have been taxed is compounded. The maximum that an individual is able to contribute to a 401k in 2018 is $18,500, and for 2019 it will be $19,000. Taking advantage of the tax benefits of a traditional 401k (and additionally, a traditional IRA) is a huge part of what has allowed me to semi-retire and travel around this world this year after only three years of full time work as a travel therapist.

401k Employer Match

A 401k sometimes has the added benefit of employer matching. The amount that is matched, if any at all, is determined by the employer and will usually be somewhere between 3%-6% of the employee’s taxable income. The employer can also include a contingency that it is only matched if the employee contributes a certain amount as well. This is the employer’s way of helping the employee have a more secure retirement by contributing to their retirement account. In many companies, the employer match took the place of a pension that used to be standard but has now disappeared in most public sector jobs. An employer match is in no way equal to a pension since the benefit is comparatively small, but any extra money toward retirement is a great thing!

The employer match is great if the company offers one, but for the majority of travelers this will be a moot point. Most travel companies offer a 401k with some sort of employer match, BUT they have a vesting schedule. The vesting schedule determines how much of the employer match you get to keep if you leave the company early, which makes this an incentive for the employee to stay with that employer. Many of the companies require that you have to work between 3-5 years with the company to keep all of the employer match. Some plans will have a tiered vesting schedule: something along the lines of at one year you keep 20% of the matched amount, at two years you keep 40%, etc. However others have a “cliff” vesting schedule: something like if you work three years or more you keep all of the matched amount, but if you leave before three years you don’t keep any of the amount that has been matched. Basically, the 401k employer match is great, but unfortunately it won’t apply to travelers that switch between companies often or that don’t plan to work three years or more as a traveler. In that case, an individual retirement account could make more sense and involve less hassle for the traveler.

Traditional Individual Retirement Account

A traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account) is another option which has the same benefits as a traditional 401k, and doesn’t require an employer to utilize, and one other big difference, the contribution maximum. A traditional IRA allows a maximum contribution of only $5,500 for 2018 and $6,000 for 2019. If you’re a big saver like me and plan to reach financial independence as quickly as possible and maybe even retire early, then that’s a relatively small maximum each year.

If you plan to switch companies often, and therefore won’t benefit from the employer match, and don’t plan on putting $6,000 or more toward your retirement account each year, then foregoing the 401k and choosing an IRA instead could be the best choice. An IRA does have the added benefit of more flexibility between investment choices. With a 401k, the investment choices are usually limited to 10-20 options chosen by the company, whereas with an IRA the investment options are essentially limitless.

Utilizing a 401k and an IRA

For those, like me, that plan to put more than $6,000 toward retirement each year, then contributing to a 401k account in addition to an IRA will likely be necessary even if the individual won’t benefit from the employer match.

Luckily, having a 401k and an IRA is pretty easy, even if you switch travel companies often. (Keep reading below to learn more about that process if switching companies.) I’ve switched between companies on a few different occasions and have always taken advantage of a 401k account if offered, while also contributing the maximum amount to both the 401k and an IRA.

There are income limits where the benefit of an IRA (the tax savings) starts to diminish if the individual is also contributing to a 401k, but the limit is higher than most traveler therapists will make at $63,000 of adjusted gross income (tax free stipends are not factored into this number).

In my opinion, if you plan to save more than $6,000 toward retirement each year, then it makes the most sense to me to contribute the maximum to an IRA, and then any additional money you wish to save would be invested in the 401k. This is assuming that you wouldn’t benefit from the employer match, but if you would, then it would be foolish to pass up that match.

Here is the general order of operations that I have used and that I think makes the most sense:

  1. 401k contributions up to the amount to get the full employer match (if applicable)
  2. IRA contributions up to the maximum ($6,000 for 2019)
  3. 401k contributions up to the maximum ($19,000 for 2019)
  4. After tax investments (brokerage account, real estate, etc.)

If your company doesn’t offer an employer match on the 401k or if you won’t be able to benefit from it due to the vesting schedule of the company, then skip #1.

What Happens to the Money and 401k Account When Switching Companies?

Let’s say that you follow the order of operations above and stay with the same company for your first year as a travel therapist, but then get a better offer from a different company and decide to switch. You knew that you would probably be changing companies eventually, either for a better paying job or a job that your company may not have, so you assumed you wouldn’t benefit from the employer match. You maxed out your traditional IRA and contributed an extra $10,000 to your 401k. Great job!

Now, since the IRA isn’t associated with the employer, it isn’t affected at all by switching companies. That account belongs to you only. But the 401k is affected by switching companies, so you’ve got a decision to make.

Here are your options:

  1. You can have the money paid out to you.
    • This is almost never a good idea since you will not only pay taxes on the money, but also penalties!
  2. You can keep the money in the 401k account of the employer
    • This will occasionally involve additional fees since you no longer work for them.
  3. You can roll the 401k over from your previous employer’s 401k account to your new employer’s 401k account.
    • This could also be a hassle if you don’t plan to stay with the next company very long.
  4. You can roll over the 401k into your already existing traditional IRA account.
    • In most cases, and what I’ve always chosen to do. It makes sense to roll the 401k balance over into your traditional IRA. This gives you the increased flexibility with investment options mentioned above, which usually means lower fees on the investments as well which is a wonderful thing. The account is also yours and not associated with any employer, so you don’t have to worry about moving it around again at a later time. And the accounts work the same way with taxes, and you won’t have to pay penalties.

401k Rollover to Traditional IRA

By rolling the money over into your traditional IRA account, you have essentially contributed the full $16,000 (investment in the IRA to the maximum plus the investment in the prior 401k plan that is now rolled over) to your traditional IRA. This is an easy way to effectively contribute more than the maximum amount to an IRA when switching companies. This simplifies your finances (less accounts to keep track of) and gives you more investment options which are both great things. The rollover process is very simple and can be repeated every time you leave an employer and have a 401k balance with them. I have rolled my 401k balance into a traditional IRA several times and it has never taken more than 30 minutes.

For those travel therapists that are saving a significant amount toward retirement each year, I think that this is the best option with all things considered. I max out my IRA, contribute as much as possible to my 401k, and then roll the 401k into the IRA each time I leave a travel company to give myself the most investment options and to keep my financial life as simple as possible, while still contributing over $20,000/year to the accounts that wouldn’t be possible with a traditional IRA alone.

If you do this as well then you’ll want to make sure that it is a direct rollover. More information on the different types of rollover can be found here.

Conclusion

I know that for those of you that aren’t very familiar with saving and investing, this can all sound intimidating, but it really isn’t very difficult and takes minimal time to figure out and implement.

For those travel therapists that don’t plan to save more than $6,000 toward retirement each year, then just foregoing the 401k and choosing an IRA instead is the most simple option. For those that want to save more than $6,000 per year and also switch companies often, it’s worth the extra effort to contribute to the company’s 401k plan once you’ve maxed out your IRA for the year and roll that 401k over each time you leave a company. Once you’ve done it once it’s a piece of cake and will take you no time.

Above all else, make sure that you’re saving for retirement in some capacity no matter what account(s) you choose to utilize!

Remember to do your own due diligence before implementing anything that I talk about, since this is not intended to be specific advice for you. Thanks for reading and I hope that this post helped to clarify things for you.

If you have any questions about this post or anything else travel therapy related then contact us and we’ll do our best to help you out. If you need assistance finding a good travel therapy company or recruiter then reach out to us and we can help you there as well.

How do you currently handle your retirement accounts as a travel therapist? Let us know in the comments!

 

Should You Get a Contract Extension Bonus as a Travel Therapist?

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

The Benefits of Extending a Contract

If you are a prospective or current traveler whose primary goal with travel therapy is to earn as much money as possible (likely to pay off student debt), then extending contracts when possible is a great idea. Whitney and I always try to extend contracts in places that we enjoy, and I actually extended my very first contract as a new grad twice for a total of nine months there. Extending a contract means less, or hopefully no, downtime between contracts since you don’t have to move to a new location. Most travelers choose to take at least a week off between contracts to move to their new assignment location. but that missed work means less money earned. Mitigating time off is a primary way to earn more throughout the year. Additionally, extending a contract is also easier because you’re already accustomed to the facility, staff, and patients.

Another big benefit of extending a contract is that you can almost always earn more money on the extension than you did on the original contract, either in the form of a bonus or an increase in taxable hourly pay. We usually try to get about $1-$2/hour extra when extending a contract, which ends up being $40-$80 more per week or $500-$1,000 more over the course of a 13 week contract! A dollar or two extra per hour may not sound like much, but it really adds up over time. Another option is to have the travel company reimburse travel expenses incurred while traveling back to your tax home if you plan to do that at any time during the contract. A reimbursement is almost always better than increase in taxable pay, if possible, because reimbursements aren’t taxed and therefore will mean more money in your pocket.

Understanding “Extension Bonuses”

Some travelers believe that getting an extension bonus means that the recruiter was keeping more money than they needed to be on the original contract, and now they’re somehow able to offer you more money the second go round, but that is not the case. So where does the extra money come from? Let’s investigate the answer to this question!

When you start a new contract as a travel therapist, the travel company has some upfront costs that they have to cover in order for you to start. These costs include things like: travel reimbursement for you to get to the new place, license reimbursement if applicable, background check, drug test, and TB test. All of those costs added together can end up being a significant amount of money that the company pays out in the beginning before you ever start working at the new place. These costs have to be accounted for by the company of course, so they reduce the amount that you make each week so that these costs can be recovered throughout the course of the contract. This reduction in the traveler’s pay is to be expected since all of our pay, reimbursements, and the travel company’s overhead costs, as well as their profits, come out of the “bill rate” that the facility pays the company. In other words, all the money has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is what the facility pays the travel company. Under normal circumstances where the traveler moves to a new facility after every contract with no extensions, the company has to incur these costs again before each new contract. On an extension however, these costs aren’t incurred again, which means that there is extra money that can be added to your pay!

Negotiating Extension Bonuses with Your Recruiter

Most experienced recruiters understand that by the traveler extending in a location, there will be extra money to allocate to the traveler on the extension. But I’ve worked with recruiters in the past that say that an extension bonus isn’t possible since the bill rate is the same for the extension, and the facility “isn’t offering any additional money.” Unfortunately, they were overlooking these costs that the company would be saving on the extension. After explaining how they would be saving money on the things I mentioned above for my extension, I’ve always been able to negotiate some amount of extra pay or bonus for the extension.

It’s important to discuss this with your recruiter and make sure you are on the same page. You are your own biggest advocate and need to be an informed and educated traveler.

Bottom Line

Less missed work and higher pay on an extension make it a no-brainer if you’re at a facility and location that you enjoy AND the facility needs continued help. Always be sure to ask for more money on an extension if the recruiter doesn’t automatically give it to you, and be sure to mention the costs that they would save by you extending instead of taking a new contract to back up your request.

If you have questions on this topic or would like recommendations from us on a contract, extension, or working with travel recruiters/companies, please reach out to us and we will be happy to help!