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

Travel therapy as a PTA/COTA during Covid-19

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