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

COVID-19 Impact on Travel Therapy Jobs

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

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

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

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

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

The Travel PTA & COTA Job Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What Do We Recommend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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What is Travel Physical Therapy?

Did you know that you can get paid to travel for work as a physical therapist (PT)? In fact, physical therapist’s assistants (PTA), occupational therapists (OT), occupational therapist’s assistants (OTA), and speech language pathologists (SLP) can all get paid to travel!

Maybe you’ve heard of travel therapy (or travel nursing) before, but don’t really understand what it is or how it works. Travel physical therapy (“Travel PT”) and other travel therapy careers are growing in popularity, and for good reason, as it is actually a very accessible and lucrative career path.

Keep reading if you want to learn more about the basic ins and outs of travel physical therapy (and other disciplines!), and how you can get started!

 

What Is Travel Therapy?

Travel therapy is a career option for PTs/PTAs, OTs/OTAs, and SLPs/SLPAs allowing them to work temporary, short-term contracts while moving around to different facilities all over the United States. The length of each contract varies from a few weeks up to a year, but the most typical travel therapy contract length is 13 weeks (3 months). Travel therapists work at facilities that need a temporary employee for various reasons which could include: a temporary medical leave, a seasonal increase in caseload requiring increased staffing, or a short term staffing need while trying to hire a permanent employee.

Why Choose Travel Therapy?

There are many benefits of choosing a career in travel therapy. Financial gain is a major reason many therapists choose to travel, since travel therapists typically earn a higher income than permanent therapists. Another perk of choosing travel therapy is being able to explore new areas of the country and experience new adventures. Therapists can also gain experience in new practice settings, learn new skills, and meet new friends and co-workers. Plus, travel therapy can afford therapists significant lifestyle flexibility, as they can choose to work when they want to and take off from work when they want to. For example, we have been able to work only one or two 13-week contracts per year, while taking 6 months or more off from work each year to travel around the world for leisure!

For more on our domestic and international travel adventures, check out our travel physical therapy blog

How Does Travel Therapy Work?

There are different ways that a therapist can become a traveler, for example by working through a travel staffing company, working as an independent contractor, or working as an internal traveler through a particular medical system. The most common way is working through a staffing company, often referred to as a “travel company.”

Travel therapists, especially new grad travel therapists, often ask, “Which is the best travel company?” The truth is that there are well over 100 different travel companies out there, and they all have their pros and cons. Each travel therapist has their own unique situation and needs that will influence which travel company is best for him/her. Finding the ideal travel company for you can be difficult, but it helps to get individualized recommendations based on your situation.

If you’re wondering which travel company to choose, send us a message and we’ll give you personalized company recommendations based on our experience!

When working through a travel company, the therapist’s primary point of contact is the recruiter. Your recruiter helps you find travel therapy jobs, assists you throughout the process, and is a resource to you during your contract. The individual recruiter you work with can make or break your experience with a particular travel company. It’s vital to find a great recruiter at any company you choose to work with in order to have a successful travel therapy career. You want to search for a recruiter that is personable, trustworthy, attentive, and understanding. Unfortunately there are many recruiters out there that are willing to low ball travel therapists on pay and push therapists into a bad situation just to make money off of them. Be sure to choose wisely and reach out if you need help!

Travel therapists should communicate with more than one company in order to have the most job options, because not all companies have access to the same jobs. This also introduces a bit of healthy competition between recruiters, which discourages low ball pay offers that I mentioned earlier. Since the recruiters are working to get your business and are aware that you have other options, they are much more likely to present the therapist with the highest pay offer possible in order to not lose out to a different recruiter/company. Therapists are free to work with as many companies as they want, and they are only employees of one company during the length of one contract. There are no binding commitments to stay with one company for a certain length of time. Travel staffing companies are simply there to help you through the process and offer positions for you to pursue.

Travel therapists have a choice to take as many or as few contracts as they wish. They can work one 13-week contract, then decide they want to take a permanent job after that, or they can continuously work travel contracts for their entire careers, with short or long breaks between jobs. They also have a choice as to where they would like to go and when they would like to work. However, finding a position depends on the jobs that are available and the timing. Therapists have three major factors to consider when searching for positions: location, setting, and pay. The more flexible therapists are on these factors, the more job options they will have. If they are too particular, for example only willing to work in one setting and in one state, there will be less job options and may lead to extended periods of unwanted time off.

How Much Money Do Travel Physical Therapists Make?

Travel physical therapy salary is a major concern for many prospective travel PTs. This is no surprise with the massive amounts of student loans that many new grad physical therapists begin their career with these days! Travel physical therapists can sometimes make up to double what a permanent physical therapist would make! Similarly, travel OT’s, SLP’s and assistants can make quite a bit more than permanent therapists in these professions.

A typical weekly pay for a Travel PT would be between $1500 to $1800 after taxes. This is the equivalent of a permanent gross salary of over $120,000 in many cases! Some travel physical therapy jobs can pay as high as $2,000/week after taxes, although these jobs are usually on the west coast and in the home health setting. Travel SLPs and Travel OTs make similar weekly take home pay, while assistants can expect to make between $1100-1300 per week after taxes.

Travel therapist pay works a little differently than salary pay. Typically the travel therapist will be paid an hourly rate, plus a stipend for housing, meals and incidentals. The stipend is not taxed, as long as the therapist meets the IRS requirements for maintaining a proper tax home and traveling away from that tax home. Since part of the pay is untaxed, the net amount that the travel therapist keeps is much higher than with a permanent, salaried position. The bottom line is that a travel physical therapist salary, when working consistently throughout the year, is very high, and that is even the case for new grad travel physical therapists!

In What Settings Do Travel Therapists Work?

The most prevalent travel physical therapy jobs are in Skilled Nursing Facilities and home health, followed by outpatient and acute, then schools. Specialty settings such as pediatrics, neuro, and women’s health are less common to see for travel physical therapists. Skilled Nursing and home health are by far the most common for Travel PTA’s and Travel COTA’s. Travel OTs and Travel SLPs most often work in Skilled Nursing, acute, home health, and schools.

Do You Have to Be Licensed in Each State?

When moving to a new state to work as a travel therapist, you must have a license to work in the new state. Traditionally, therapists apply for licensure in each individual state in which they plan to work. Currently, physical therapists in some states are eligible for an an interstate licensure agreement called the “PT Compact” which makes licensing easier between states. Hopefully in the future, all 50 states will participate in this agreement, which would be a huge perk and make life much easier for travel physical therapists! Occupational and speech therapy organizations are in the process of working on this type of compact licensure as well, which would greatly benefit Travel OT’s and Travel SLP’s.

Do Travel Therapists Receive Benefits?

When therapists take travel contracts through a staffing agency, they become employees of the staffing agency, just like the recruiter with whom they’re communicating. During that contract, they are eligible to receive benefits (including health insurance, liability insurance, 401k, etc.) through the staffing company. They would maintain these benefits as long as they are on contract, and the benefits would carry over to the next contract and during short breaks between contracts if the therapist takes the next contract with the same company. If, however, the therapist switches companies, the benefits would change and switch to the new company.

If therapists choose to work as independent contractors, or choose to decline the benefits from the travel company, they would be responsible for maintaining their own benefits. For more information, check out this article explaining how benefits work as a travel therapist.

What About Housing?

There are many options for housing as a travel therapist. The staffing agency can help you set up housing, however it is often better to set up your own housing. If they set up your housing for you, they will not pay you a housing stipend, and your weekly pay would be reduced. If you opt to set up your own housing, they will pay you the tax-free housing stipend, and you are responsible for making your own housing arrangements.

There are a variety of ways to go about searching for short term housing as a travel therapist. Some real estate agencies and apartment complexes allow short term housing arrangements. Therapists can stay in extended stay motels, or many therapists choose to use sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, Furnished Finder, and Craigslist to find short term housing. Some travel therapists choose to stay with friends or family, or search Facebook communities to find housing options using their peer groups. You can also contact the facility where you would be working and ask if they have any housing leads. Others choose to live in an RV and stay at campgrounds, like we did for several years! Finding short term housing as a travel therapist can be a hassle, but there are many options!

Is Travel Therapy Limited to the United States?

The typical travel therapist is licensed to work in the United States and takes contracts within the United States or the US Territories.

Therapists who are trained outside of the US can pursue travel therapy within the US, but there are more regulations and hoops to jump through, so often this is not an easy career path. It is generally recommended that foreign-trained therapists apply for their work visas within the US at a permanent position prior to pursuing travel contract positions.

US-trained therapists who would like to travel for work outside the US will encounter similar challenges. It is possible to arrange short term travel contracts in another country, but it is certainly more challenging and not the norm. US therapists may have more success applying for a work visa in another country and applying directly to a certain facility to work there, rather than searching openings to try to obtain short term contracts.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re interested in getting started as a travel physical therapist or other travel healthcare professional, check out our guide to starting your travel therapy career to learn what steps to take.

If you’d like our recommendations on travel therapy companies and recruiters that we’ve had a good experience with, fill out this form and we will send you personalized recommendations for your situation!

To learn even more about travel therapy, you can visit the other articles on our Travel Therapy Mentor website, and check out some of our own personal stories on our travel physical therapy blog “Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist.” Feel free to send us a message if you have more questions about pursuing a travel therapy career!

 

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

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