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.

Top 5 Things to Avoid During Your First Travel Therapy Contract

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

Starting your first travel therapy contract is an exciting time, but there are definitely a lot of factors to consider when choosing your first contract, and mistakes to avoid once you get there! Since we covered choosing your first job recently, now we want to cover things to consider when you’re working at your first travel placement! These things apply both for new grads and experienced clinicians starting travel therapy for the first time. Some of these do have to be negotiated in advance as well, and they will come into play once you start working!

Productivity

Productivity is a dreaded word in healthcare. But, unfortunately, it is a part of our jobs as healthcare professionals. It’s important that you ask about the productivity expectations during your phone interview for the travel therapy job and consider whether the expected productivity is reasonable and realistic.

This will look different based on your discipline and setting. For example, for a SNF placement, the expectation could be anywhere from 75-95% (or potentially even higher with the new Medicare Patient Driven Payment Model changes on the horizon)! We urge you to consider whether the suggested productivity expectation is doable if you remain within ethical and legal guidelines. In general, we feel anything close to 90% or above is not realistic, especially for an evaluating therapist (PT, OT, SLP). In most cases, 85% is probably the max we would accept. For an outpatient physical therapy clinic, you might be looking for how many patients per day or per hour you are expected to see. In our experience, for an 8 hour day, between 10-14 patients is what we feel comfortable with. But, the therapist’s ability to meet these productivity standards in any setting is going to depend heavily on how the clinic is set up and how it operates.

When presented with a productivity standard that sounds high, we would encourage you to have a discussion with the manager or interviewer. Find out how the facility operates on a daily basis to help you decide if the productivity will be achievable. Are there techs or aids to assist with ancillary tasks such as setup/cleanup or patient transport? If it’s an inpatient or home health setting, is the productivity weighted based on what type of patient session is performed (evaluation, treatment, discharge, etc.)? When are the full time therapists able to complete their required documentation throughout the day? These are all important things to consider and ask during your interview.

In general, we don’t recommend you sign a contract that has the productivity standard written into the contract. This happens sometimes with SNFs, and sometimes they try to use this to say that if you drop below the written productivity, they can deduct your pay. If possible, avoid taking contracts like this, and if you see it written in a contract, talk to your recruiter to get it removed.

Once you’re on the job, be aware whether the productivity, and the various factors that affect productivity, are in line with what was discussed (and promised) during your interview. Is the clinic what you were told it would be, or is it totally different? Are you being asked to suddenly meet unrealistic productivity standards? Are things like the documentation system, support staff, and scheduling conducive to you being able to meet the productivity?

As a travel therapist, you are generally expected to be able to “hit the ground running” without much ramp up time. Sometimes facilities are able to provide more or less ramp up time or training than others, it just depends on the contract. But regardless of these expectations, you have to be honest with yourself and your supervisor. If the productivity expectations are not reasonable enough for you to meet them within your regularly scheduled hours, you need to stand up for yourself as a healthcare professional. Don’t let anyone guilt you in to stretching the limits of your ethics and legality, or your personal sanity, to meet unrealistic productivity expectations. Always remember, it’s your professional license and your quality of patient care at stake.

Working Off The Clock

Discussing productivity leads directly into our next topic, working off the clock. All too often, if the productivity standards at a facility are unrealistic and cannot truly be achieved during a standard workday, it leads to employees working off the clock to get their documentation done. For permanent employees who are on salary, there isn’t really such a thing as “working off the clock.” So, often, they will be in the habit of coming in early, staying late, working through lunch, or taking paperwork home with them. If you’re a practicing clinician, you are undoubtedly familiar with this, and as a student having gone through clinicals, you may be as well.

However, as a travel therapist, it’s important to remember that you are an hourly employee. You are paid by the hour that you work. Therefore, you should be able to complete all required work (including documentation) during your scheduled work hours. This can be difficult for employers/supervisors to cope with, because they’re used to their salaried employees. So if necessary, if this becomes an issue, it may require a conversation with your recruiter and/or your supervisor.

We encourage you to get paid for all of your time. So if the schedule and productivity expectations are not conducive to you completing your required work within your regular hours, something needs to change. This could mean a conversation about your schedule to reduce the caseload or allow built in time for paperwork. Otherwise, if you are working beyond your scheduled workday, you should be getting paid overtime.

Overtime

This leads in to the next topic. As stated above, if you’re working overtime hours, you should be getting overtime pay.

Typically as a traveler, facilities do not want to pay overtime. So, we have approached this situation in a couple different ways. Either we would let them know upfront that based on our schedule and our documentation, we would be going into overtime, and see what they say. Or, we would just do the required work, and if this required 30mins to an hour of overtime, we would then write that on our timesheet for the week. If nothing was said, we would just continue to write our hours down as we worked them, even if that meant overtime. But, often if you put down overtime hours, this will spark a conversation from your recruiter or supervisor. This is then the time when you would want to discuss the various factors of your day that make you unable to complete the required patient care and documentation within your normal hours. Then, perhaps the supervisor will work with you to make changes to your schedule, or they will agree to allow you overtime.

As far as overtime pay goes, this works a little bit differently for travel therapists. Typically, overtime pay is a standard “time and a half” on your hourly pay. However, this amount does not make sense for a traveler, because time and a half on our hourly is actually lower than our standard 40 hour pay when you account for the stipends received during our normal working hours. To learn more about overtime pay, check out this article.

The bottom line is that if you are going to be working overtime hours, you need to get compensated appropriately for the overtime hours. Hopefully you were able to negotiate an appropriate overtime rate when you signed your contract (in general for PT/OT/SLP this should be at minimum $45/hour but could be up to $85-100/hour). But, if for some reason you find yourself in a travel contract where you are actually working a lot of overtime hours, and your overtime pay is still only time and a half of your hourly, you need to discuss this with your recruiter and get it increased. Sometimes they can create an addendum to your contract to add a higher overtime rate, or they may be able to pay you a bonus at the end of the contract to compensate you for the difference in what you should have been receiving for overtime. Either way, make sure the overtime pay you are receiving is worth your time. Otherwise, don’t agree to work overtime, and instead make sure your schedule is adjusted accordingly.

Work Drama

Switching gears a bit, our next recommendation for your first contract (and all subsequent contracts!) is to avoid the work drama! As most of us healthcare professionals know, there is usually some type of work drama at any facility, whether it be interpersonal relationships, a bad manager, a bad coworker, staffing issues, or new rules and changes happening at the facility. This should be one of the best parts about working as a travel therapist. You’re only there temporarily, so you shouldn’t have to worry about this drama at work!

Not only is it good for your mental health to avoid work drama, but this recommendation will also help you to be more productive and get out of work on time. I can’t tell you how many times I made the mistake of getting caught up in the work drama and happenings of the clinic, and I ended up sitting there talking to a coworker for an extra 20 minutes, hour, hour and a half, when I should’ve been getting my notes done and getting out of there! Take our advice, and avoid the work drama as a travel therapist, and you’ll come out ahead in all respects!

Planning for Your Next Contract

The last thing we encourage you to consider during your first contract is planning for your next contract! This can be a tricky part of being a travel therapist, and this will be your first time navigating the transition. If you wait until the end of your current contract to start looking for your next contract then you’ll be way behind! We recommend that around mid-contract, you start to consider where your next move will be.

Are things going well at your current contract, and maybe you’re considering extending? Usually you can get a feel for this after the first few weeks. You might also already have an idea whether the facility might need you to extend or not. Have they found someone to cover their staffing needs already, or are they still searching? Is the caseload still high, or has it dropped and they won’t need anyone any longer? By about halfway through your contract, if you want to extend, you should start talking to your supervisor about it. Sometimes they will approach you themselves, but often you have to ask. In the past, we have usually approached the supervisor and said something along the lines of, “It’s about halfway through my contract and this is when I need to decide what my next move will be. I was wondering about your current staffing needs, and if you think you might need me longer than my 13 week contract?” This is usually a good opener to the conversation. If you do want to extend, and they need you to extend, you then go back to your recruiter and proceed with the contract extension negotiations.

If extending your contract is not an option or not something you want to do, then you need to start thinking about where you want to work next, and when you want to start. If you’re interested in going to a different state, you need to already be working on the next license. We always recommend having the license in hand before applying to a job in a certain state. Sometimes while you are already on contract with a company, they will be able to help you start the process of getting your next state license.

If you plan to start work immediately after your current contract, it’s best to start looking for your next job about 6 weeks out from your end date. We usually try to have our next contract locked down within 2 to 4 weeks of our end date. If we get down to 2 weeks from our end date, that’s when we start getting a little nervous, and also when we might consider expanding our search criteria and getting a little less picky.

This is an important factor to consider as a travel therapist on your first contract and on all subsequent contracts. 13 weeks goes by a lot faster than you think! In order to avoid a lot of unwanted (and unpaid) time off, you need to be on top of your job searches. Hopefully you have a team of recruiters that is proactive and will also be reminding you of this and helping you with the process. But we encourage you to be proactive in your job search, because ultimately you’re the only one who is going to go without work and without pay if you don’t lock in a contract.

Conclusion

While there are lots of things to think about during your first contract, these are the main ones we wanted to highlight that we think pertain to all travel therapists. There will undoubtedly be a lot of other factors, especially various clinical nuances, to consider. But, in terms of being successful as a travel therapist, the biggies are: making sure you’re not being taken advantage of in terms of productivity, not working off the clock, and overtime; as well as avoiding work drama; and planning ahead for your next contract!

We hope this information helps to set you up for success during your first travel contract! If you have questions for us, don’t hesitate to send us a message!

If you’re still in the process of getting started with travel therapy and would like recommendations for recruiters we have worked with that will have your back during your journey as a traveler, fill out this form and we will get back to you with recommendations!