Your Guide to Pursuing Travel Therapy in 2020

It’s the new year, and you’re ready for a new adventure, right? Travel therapy here you come!

Travel Therapy (Travel PT, Travel OT, Travel SLP) can be an awesome career choice – one that we’ve been thoroughly enjoying for over 4 years – but there are lots of considerations that go into pursuing this path – especially in 2020!

As many of you may know, there have been lots of changes recently affecting the therapy world, and this has had an impact on travel therapy jobs too. Unfortunately, the travel therapy market hasn’t been quite as “hot” in the last several months as it was in prior years.

So what does this mean if you’re looking to get into travel therapy in 2020? Let’s take a look:

The Current Travel Therapy Job Market

Recent changes to Medicare reimbursement are having an impact on the job market for PTs, OTs, SLPs and assistants, both for permanent positions and travel positions.

In October 2019, Medicare initiated the Patient Driven Payment Model (PDPM) for the Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) setting, and as a result, we saw layoffs occur nationwide in SNFs. This meant permanent therapists losing jobs, hours being cut, and a gap between the supply and demand for open positions. Naturally, this impacted both perm and travel therapists fighting for some of the same jobs. In travel therapy, we saw less overall SNF openings and higher competition for those that were available. This also had a carry-over effect into other settings, as therapists shifted from SNF positions into other settings to find work.

To learn more about the PDPM changes, check out this video where we discussed what PDPM is, and this video where we discussed the current impact it’s having on travel therapy!

In early 2020, Medicare will begin the Patient Driven Groupings Model (PDGM) for the home health setting. We anticipate that these changes may have a similar impact on the travel therapy job market. This timing is tough, when we are still feeling the impact from the PDPM changes from the Fall.

To learn more about PDGM, check out this video where we discussed what PDGM is and how this will likely affect travel therapists!

In addition to these Medicare changes affecting the job market, we know that historically January is a very tough time for travel therapists looking for jobs.  This is commonly known as the “January job lull.” There are many reasons for this, including current travel therapists taking off time between contracts for the holidays, and trying to resume work after January 1st. This combined with an increase in new therapists trying to begin travel therapy after the first of the year, including new grads and those looking to change from a permanent position into travel positions, means an over-supply of therapists looking for jobs. In addition to the flood of therapists looking for jobs to start the first week or so of January, sometimes there is a reduction in open positions because facilities already hired someone to cover through the holidays and into January, or because facilities are awaiting their new budget for the year to get approval to advertise for a job opening.

With all of these factors combined, we are seeing a large number of therapists looking for jobs, and a lower number of overall available jobs. What we’re left with is a challenging time to be entering the travel therapy job market in early 2020.

Are All Therapy Disciplines Affected?

Prior to the recent changes affecting the job market, we were already seeing a decline in the travel therapy job market for PTAs, COTAs, and OTs in the summer and fall of 2019. So unfortunately, these changes have continued to impact these disciplines the most.

The job market for PTs and SLPs has remained pretty strong overall, but there is still a reduction in overall jobs. So while the current job market isn’t quite as good as it has been in the past, PTs and SLPs probably won’t find themselves out of a job, but they may have to work a little harder to find the travel therapy contracts they want.

Of course, these trends can change at any time, and we are hopeful things will start looking up for all disciplines after the Medicare changes settle out and we get past the January Job Lull. So hopefully things will be better by Spring-Summer 2020!

Should I Avoid Travel Therapy in 2020?

Not necessarily, but maybe. We are all about travel therapy. It has been an amazing career choice for us as Travel PTs, and we feel it can be a great career choice for others too. But, you do have to be realistic and look at all the factors.

With the current job market, we feel it will be most challenging for OTs and assistants to work as travel therapists in early 2020, since we have seen the biggest impact on job availability for these disciplines, particularly COTAs and PTAs. For assistants, it may be better to stay in a current permanent position or PRN position (or switch from traveling to taking a more permanent position) until the job market improves for travel COTAs and PTAs.

For OTs, this may also be the best move to seek permanent employment for now; however, if you are flexible on where you are willing to go, have a strong resume, and have an emergency fund for any lapses in employment, you can still be successful as a travel therapist.

For PTs and SLPs, we don’t think you need to avoid travel therapy right now despite the changes in the market! Keep reading to learn our recommendations for success as a traveler in 2020.

How to Be a Successful Travel Therapist in 2020

What does all of this mean for you if you’re a current travel therapist or wanting to become a travel therapist in 2020?

It means that you will need to be well-informed, well-prepared, and more flexible as you search for travel therapy contracts this year.

Here are our recommendations for you:

1. Be Flexible

It’s very important in a low job market to be as flexible as possible on the key factors affecting your travel therapy job search, which include: Setting, Location, and Pay. While we would all love to have our top choice on setting, our top choice on the city and state where we want to be, and the highest pay package in the world, the fact is that this is not realistic given the current job market.

If you really want to be a travel therapist and reap all the benefits to being a traveler, then you need to be flexible on at least one, if not two to three, of these factors in order to maintain consistent employment. The fact is, if you’re not flexible, you likely won’t be able to land consistent contracts, which means you’ll be out of work and out of money.

We have many therapists and students contact us stating that they only want to work in one particular city/state. While this is possible to choose sometimes, it’s very unlikely you will be able to line up consistent travel contracts when you’re limiting your search to only one area. Especially with the current job market, we encourage you to be as flexible as possible, or else you’re going to end up being unhappy and unable to find jobs.

2. Have Multiple State Licenses

Part of being flexible means having more than one state license so you can have the option to work in a few different areas. We highly recommend that you get these state licenses in advance. Some travelers (or potential travelers) will only have one license when going into a job search, and they’re disappointed when they can’t find jobs in that state, or can’t get interviews for jobs in other states because they’re not licensed.

There is a lot of strategy that goes into the job search. We recommend talking to a few different recruiters and travel therapists to find out which states tend to have more jobs for your discipline, then get licensed in those states in advance. This way you’ll have a few viable state licenses when it comes time for your job search.

For more on the licensing process, check out this article.

3. Work with Multiple Recruiters

In order to have the most job options, it’s important that you work with multiple recruiters at different travel therapy staffing agencies. Each staffing company will have access to different jobs, so by only working with (communicating with) one recruiter/one company, you are limiting your job options. We think it’s best to have a least 3 recruiters searching for jobs for you. There are definitely some pros and cons to using multiple agencies, which you can learn more about here, but overall we think this is the best method to ensure success and maintain consistent employment as a travel therapist.

For personalized recommendations for travel therapy companies and recruiters, fill out this form and we will email you to get you connected with some of our favorite recruiters!

4. Build Up Your Resume

In a time of excess supply of therapists applying for the same jobs, it’s important to have a strong resume to help you stand out. Some things that can help your resume stand out would be: applying for settings in which you have a strong background, and making sure to highlight those experiences on your resume and during your interview; getting additional experience in a new setting via a PRN position; taking continuing education courses to enhance your knowledge in a particular area; and getting advanced certifications in your field of expertise.

For new grads, trying to stand out among experienced clinicians can be hard, so applying for a setting in which you have strong clinical internship experience will be helpful, and anything you can do on your own to get additional knowledge and experience like weekend courses, certifications, or shadowing/volunteering will help.

5. Be Prepared and Prompt

Timing is everything in the world of travel therapy. Job orders can open and close very quickly. It’s important that you have all of your ducks in a row so to speak when it’s time for your job search. This means, you need to have your resume up to date, have your profile and any necessary information set up with the travel therapy staffing company, have your license already, and be ready to submit right away to new job openings.

This also means you need to already establish a relationship with your recruiters in advance, so they can help you through any necessary steps prior to submitting you to jobs. We recommend having this all set up at least 8 weeks prior to your desired start date. You also need to have a good understanding with your recruiters as to which jobs they can submit you for. We recommend you seek approval before letting your recruiters submit you, to avoid a double submission by two different recruiters. But, you need to be fast with this process so that another therapist doesn’t beat you to the job. When you’re on an active job search with your recruiters, you need to be communicating with them daily, and be very prompt in responding to their texts, calls or emails when they see a job come through.

If you need help finding recruiters you can trust to help you find jobs, feel free to contact us!

6. Be Realistic

Once you’ve taken all of this into account, you have to be realistic with yourself. Travel therapy is a business, and thus it’s subject to supply and demand as we’ve discussed here. Sometimes things are great, the jobs and paychecks are plentiful, and everybody is happy. But sometimes things don’t always go to plan, and there’s only so much that you, and your recruiters, can do about it.

Far too often we see therapists feeling slighted by the job market, their recruiter, the situation. They feel like they’re being taken advantage of, deceived, that somebody else is getting the better end of the deal than them. New grads come in feeling somewhat entitled and having high expectations when looking at their debt to income ratio. We get it, we’ve been there.

But just remember to take a step back and look at things realistically. Travel therapy can be a great option, but it may not always be the best option for one person at one time. It may be that you find yourself not being able to line up the coolest contracts in the coolest cities like all the people you see on Instagram. Maybe you’re not pulling in the highest paycheck ever this go-round.

But, maybe you will next time. Maybe you have to take this one contract that’s not your favorite, that’s not the highest paying, so that you don’t have to take an extended period of time off from work, so that you don’t have to settle down in your hometown at a permanent job, and so that you can get some experience under your belt. Maybe, once you get through this one, you’ll be able to line up a fantastic location in the perfect setting making the most money ever. Maybe, or maybe not.

The point is that there are a ton of variables when pursuing travel therapy, and we don’t always know what we’re going to get. But, in the end, we choose travel therapy because we want something different. We don’t want to settle down in one spot at the same job forever. We want to explore the country, try out different settings, make more money. With all the good that comes along with travel therapy, sometimes we have to take a little bit of the bad too. We have to be realistic.

7. Have a Back-Up Plan

Last, but not least, have a back up plan. This is of course our careers we are talking about here. We have to earn income to maintain our lifestyles, pay our bills, fulfill our responsibilities, take care of our families and ourselves. It’s important that everyone keeps an emergency fund, but even more so as a travel therapist when our employment can be a little more variable. We recommend keeping at least 3-6 months worth of expenses in savings as an emergency fund, in order to cover any time off between contracts. Of course this isn’t possible right away on your first contract as a new grad, but the quicker you get there the better.

In addition to an emergency fund, we also recommend keeping your options open if you needed to return home for a while and line up a PRN or permanent position, in case you were unable to find a travel job. Some therapists choose to remain on staff as a PRN therapist in their hometown for times like this. Others might just need to think ahead of where they would go to apply for work in case traveling just didn’t work out for them.

Conclusion: Should I Pursue Travel Therapy in 2020?

The answer is: Maybe!

Travel therapy may not be the best choice for every therapist, but it’s a great choice for some. You need to take into account your own situation and the job market before making your decision. There are so many amazing reasons to choose travel therapy in 2020: earn higher income, explore the country, take off time when you want to (and can afford to), try out new settings, and meet new people! But there are definitely some reasons to take a step back and evaluate your options given the current job market.

If you need help getting started with travel therapy this year, feel free to contact us, and if you’d like our recommendations for travel therapy companies and recruiters we trust, fill out this form!

Happy Traveling in 2020!

 

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Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

Whitney is a Doctor of Physical Therapy who has been working as a traveling physical therapist since 2015. She travels with her boyfriend and fellow Travel PT, Jared. Together they are the founders of Travel Therapy Mentor. Whitney and Jared are currently working only part of the year as Travel PTs and are spending several months per year traveling internationally for leisure!

What is a Typical Travel Physical Therapy Salary?

Travel PT Salary Explained

When it comes to travel physical therapy pay (travel PT pay), there is a lot of misinformation and deception out there. There are dozens of different ways that money can be moved around and presented differently in a travel PT pay package to try to make the compensation look better. Understanding a typical permanent physical therapist’s salary and benefits package can be difficult enough, but travel PT pay packages take that to a new level. The big reason for this is that travel physical therapy pay can’t be expressed in a a yearly salary amount due to the nature of the jobs being temporary, short term positions. One traveler may choose to work back to back contracts for the whole year, while others, like us, may choose to just work one or two contracts each year. This will obviously make a massive impact on the amount each travel physical therapists earns each year. Since discussing compensation in terms of travel physical therapist salary doesn’t work, our best solution is to discuss pay in terms of weekly pay.

Now to complicate matters even more, most travel PTs receive tax free stipends for housing, meals, and incidentals (assuming they maintain a tax home) in addition to their hourly taxable pay. That means that even discussing pay in terms of weekly gross or net amounts can be confusing, since part of the money we receive each week is taxed and part of it is not. The best solution for all of this is to discuss all travel PT pay in terms of a weekly “take home pay” amount. This is essentially the net pay amount that the traveler will receive in their bank account each week. To determine this amount, we take the regular hourly taxable amount, multiply by 40 hours (the typical work week), subtract out the estimated taxes on that amount, and then add the stipend (sometimes called per diem) amounts. Since the majority of travel physical therapists and travel therapy recruiters talk about pay in these terms when discussing various travel PT jobs, it’s vital to understand how this all works when first starting out. To see in much more depth how this is calculated and how to find what your tax rate may be on the taxable portion of your travel PT pay, check out this article breaking it all down.

What is Normal for a Travel Physical Therapy Salary?

Now that we understand how travel physical therapy pay works, let’s discuss what you can actually expect to make in those weekly take home pay terms. If you ask a few travel therapists and recruiters what average pay should be for a travel contract, you can almost guarantee you’ll get conflicting answers. The reason for this is that is depends on a number of different factors. These factors include:

  • The location of the travel PT job
  • The setting in which the travel therapist will be working
  • The company and recruiter that the traveler chooses to work through
  • The urgency with which the facility needs to fill the position
  • The reimbursements included in the pay package that are separate from the weekly pay amount

Depending on these factors, over the past several years we’ve seen travel physical therapist pay offers range from $1,300-$2,500/week after taxes! That is a truly massive range, which leads to a lot of confusion for new travelers! You may talk to a current travel PT that tells you that you should never accept a job making less than $2,000/week take home, while another tells you they usually make around $1,500/week take home. To understand why this is, let’s discuss each of the factors mentioned above in more detail and explain exactly how they affect travel PT salary.

Travel PT Job Location

In general, the location of the potential travel PT job usually has the biggest impact on the pay that is offered. Travel jobs in higher cost of living areas tend to pay higher than jobs in lower cost of living areas. Also jobs on the west coast tend to pay higher than jobs on the east coast or in the midwest. In addition, rural jobs (read: less desirable locations) usually pay higher than jobs in cities where more physical therapists want to go. What this all means is that you’re much more likely to see a very high paying travel PT job in California in a high cost of living area or a very rural area than you are in a city on the east coast or in the midwest. As I mentioned earlier, every travel PT jobs is unique, so this isn’t always true but in the majority of cases it holds true.

  Travel PT Job Setting

Just like in the permanent physical therapy world where physical therapy salary is significantly affected by setting, so is the case with travel PT jobs. Interestingly enough, the settings that would typically pay well for a permanent PT aren’t always the ones that pay travel physical therapists well. Whereas for permanent therapists, skilled nursing facilities (SNF) often offer comparatively high pay, for travel therapists SNFs are usually the lowest paying setting. This can leave new travel PTs frustrated when they’re offered low pay for a SNF job that may not even be much higher than it would be for a permanent therapist taking a job in that facility. For travel physical therapists, typically home health pays the highest followed by outpatient and acute care, with SNFs and schools bringing up the rear.

Travel PT Company and Recruiter

There are well over 200 travel therapy companies in existence, so it should be no surprise that some of them pay better than others. In addition, over the years we’ve learned that some recruiters will pay more or less than others even at the same company for a given travel job. This means that when picking a company and recruiter you need to choose wisely! Generally (although not always) smaller companies with lower overhead are able to pay higher than bigger companies that have more buildings to maintain and employees to pay. The flip side though is that the bigger companies almost always have more jobs and better benefits. This makes the choice between big companies and small companies difficult. After all, high pay is wonderful but not if it means getting placed in a job that is a bad fit for you due to the company not having as many options.

***For help finding companies and recruiters that will fit you well, fill out this short questionnaire and we’ll help you out! 

Urgency of the Need of the Travel Job Facility

Every travel job is unique, which means that each job will differ with regards to why a travel PT is needed and how urgently they need the physical therapist. For example, a small outpatient facility that just had their only physical therapist leave will need someone to fill in much more urgently than a large company that just lost one out of their twelve PTs on staff. In the first situation, the facility will likely be willing to pay more to get a PT in there as quickly as possible (our specialty as travelers) so that they can get new evaluations in, whereas the second facility might be fine spreading the caseload out among the other therapists for a few weeks. Some jobs pay higher in a given location and setting just because the need is more urgent.

Reimbursements in the Pay Package

You have to look at each pay package as one big pie. You can cut the pie into two huge pieces or eight small pieces, but in the end it’s still the same amount of pie. For any travel job, there is a total amount that the travel company is able to pay you, and it’s up to you and them how that pay is divided. New travelers not understanding this is why some travel companies will use things like tuition reimbursement, vacation days, and money for CEUs to entice travelers to work with them, but ultimately that money all comes from the same pie. In practical terms, that means that the more reimbursements and perks that you receive in your contract, the lower your weekly take home pay amount will be. Let’s look at an example of this:

  • Contract 1: $1,600/week take home pay x 13 weeks
    • $400 license reimbursement for the cost of getting this new state license
    • $350 beginning and $350 ending travel reimbursement for getting to and from the travel assignment location
    • $300 CEU reimbursement during the contract
  • Contract 2: $1,700/week take home pay x 13 weeks
    • No reimbursements offered for licensing, travel costs, or CEUs

In this example, Contract 2 pays $100/week higher than Contract 1, but when we break all of those reimbursements down into a weekly amount ($400 + $350 + $350 + $300 = $1,400 / 13 weeks = $107/week) the traveler would actually make less in total with Contract 2.

This is the difficulty with discussing only weekly pay and not looking at the whole picture. It’s completely possible (and we’ve seen it often) that the traveler that takes Contract 2 could brag about making $1,700/week after taxes, and the traveler that takes Contract 1 could feel like they are being taken advantage of by their company since they’re only making $1,600/week after taxes, when in reality the total compensation with Contract 1 is better than Contract 2! This is the danger of comparing weekly pay to other travelers sometimes. In addition, one of these contracts could have some intangible benefits that don’t necessarily show up in the weekly pay or reimbursements that the other one doesn’t!

What Does This All Mean for Average Travel PT Salary?

Determining a normal travel physical therapist salary is impossible since, unlike permanent PT positions, travelers may choose to work any number of weeks per year with the time off between contracts being unpaid. This means the best way to compare pay in the travel PT world is in terms of weekly take home pay amounts. When determining what is a normal weekly take home amount, we have to take in to account a variety of factors that have a significant impact on the pay amount. The location, setting, urgency, reimbursement amounts, and the travel company that a particular travel job is through all have a big impact on weekly pay.

It’s very difficult to make an apples to apples comparison in pay between travel PT jobs and with other travelers since every travel company and contract is unique. Don’t be fooled by travel companies offering high weekly pay but no reimbursements and poor benefits because when you consider the total compensation package you may actually make more with a recruiter offering less pay weekly. Take the whole pay package and the company benefits into account each time!

If after reading all of this, you still want a general range as to what you can expect to earn as a travel physical therapist (I hear you, I searched far and wide before we started traveling 4.5 years ago), here’s a general guideline I can give you:

  • East Coast and Midwest: $1,500-$1,900/week after taxes
  • West Coast: $1,700-$2,100/week after taxes

Where you can expect to fall within that range will depend on the factors above, but the majority of jobs are going to be within these amounts. Any job offers paying less than this are probably not worth considering. You can certainly make more than this sometimes as well in certain circumstances!

Travel therapy can be confusing and intimidating when first starting out. We’re doing our best to help travelers become as knowledgeable as possible to avoid being taken advantage of by marketing gimmicks and smooth talking recruiters. If you would like help finding a few recruiters and companies that we like and trust then, feel free to reach out and we can help you. If you have any questions or suggestions, then contact us!

 

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

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Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and is co-founder of Travel Therapy Mentor. He travels with his girlfriend, fellow physical therapist, and Travel Therapy Mentor partner, Whitney.

Avoiding Bad Job Environments as a Travel Therapist

Combating the Stereotype

We often hear this idea from current therapists and students that travel therapists are expected to go into bad environments in their travel jobs. Have you heard this before? That all travel jobs are terrible clinics and work environments, and that “there’s a reason they need travelers”?

The thought process follows these lines: Since travelers make more money, then they should expect that the clinics they go into won’t be as good, or that the situation in the clinic will probably be less than ideal. A similar myth that is frequently told is that travel therapists are worked harder and given more difficult patients than the permanent staff at a facility. While there are certainly cases where these things are true, this has not at all been our experience as travel physical therapists over the past 4.5 years.

When we started traveling as new grad PTs in 2015, we heard all of these same stories and were warned to avoid traveling as new grads; but despite these warnings, we were confident in the path we had chosen. Now, years later, we couldn’t be happier that we made that decision. The vast majority of our contracts have been in clinics that we really enjoyed and have considered going back to in the future. Based on our experience interacting with well over a thousand other travel therapists over the years, we believe that travelers that get into those toxic situations have often not done their research or asked the right questions. We want to change this stereotype and give current and future travel therapists the tools to advocate for themselves and avoid those bad job environments!

Do Your Research

If you’ve read any of my prior articles here or any of my financial articles on FifthWheelPT, it’s probably pretty apparent that I thoroughly research things before making a decision. There are times when this is either good or bad, but in terms of our travel PT careers, this has certainly been a blessing. Before we had ever even graduated from PT school, I had already spent a lot of time researching about travel physical therapy to go into it as informed as I could possibly be. This included the basics, but also things like learning what a reasonable travel PT salary would be, what questions to ask during an interview with a facility, learning how to find a good recruiter and why it’s vital to work with more than one, learning how to solidify a tax home, and how best to approach getting licensed and finding jobs.

Researching these things may seem like common sense to some of you, but after conversations with many travelers in bad situations, I can assure you that it isn’t. In fact, it seems that a large proportion of travel therapists get all of their information from a single recruiter. This is a recipe for disaster, since often recruiters are trying to fill jobs as quickly as possible and not necessarily trying to find a job that is the best fit for the traveler. It may sound like they have your best interest in mind, and the good ones certainly do, but that’s not always the case. It’s extremely important to be informed and to get your information from sources that are as unbiased as possible.

Avoiding Bad Situations

We’ve talked to a number of travel PTs working in outpatient settings that have completely absurd schedules. One in particular we’ve talked to was having patients frequently triple booked throughout the day. That is not only very poor patient care, but also an extremely stressful environment for the therapist. This doesn’t just happen in outpatient though. In skilled nursing, I’ve heard of evaluating therapists that are expected to achieve 95%+ productivity. How?! Other settings can have equally ridiculous situations, but it doesn’t seem to be as common. The important thing to know is that these situations can be avoided, and we’ve had no issue finding good fitting assignments without unrealistic or unethical expectations.

The first step to finding a good clinic that fits you well as a traveler is having all the available options presented to you. This is where working with more than one company/recruiter comes into play. Many travel companies have contracts that are exclusive, meaning that no other travel company has access to those jobs. That’s important to know, because a certain travel company may have a perfect job for you in a great location, but if you aren’t actively job searching with them then you’d never even know it exists. While it’s unreasonable to try to work with a dozen or more companies, talking to 3-4 is reasonable and will ensure that you have an increased number of jobs available to you. On the other hand, many travelers that have a bad experience are working with only one recruiter and are likely only presented with a couple of different job options, and they’re told that if they don’t take one of those then they will probably have to go without work for a while. In some cases depending on your needs and preferences, that may be true, but often those are just the jobs that the recruiter needs to fill most quickly, or might be the only ones that company has, and that is why you’re being presented with only those few.

Once you are presented with a job (or several) that sounds like a good fit for you, then the next critical step is the phone interview with the manager/rehab director. Phone interviews can be intimidating, but they are usually pretty laid back with minimal or no difficult questions like you might receive during a perm job interview. The important thing during the interview is to go into it with a list of questions that YOU need answered prior to determining if the job will work for you. Sometimes the interviewing manager will be trying to get a traveler in the position as quickly as possible, in which case it may turn into you interviewing the manager more than them interviewing you for the position. If you don’t ask the right questions, then you can easily accept a job and really have no idea what you’ll be walking into. This is where you’ll ask about things like productivity, other staff on site, documentation systems, schedule, and job expectations. At this point in our careers, if double booking is expected in the outpatient travel PT job we’re interviewing for, then we’re out. Plus a few other red flags we look out for during the interview, such as PT/PTA ratio, being the only PT (in some cases), and being expected to “take your laptop home to document” (off the clock).

What if the Job Isn’t What You Expected?

Even when you go into an interview as prepared as possible, you’ve done your research, and you ask all the right questions, it’s possible that you get to the clinic and the job isn’t what you were told it would be. This is pretty rare in our experience, because clinics don’t want to waste time training someone for them to just turn around and leave/quit early, but it does happen. This is the situation that the cancellation policy in your travel contract is for. It’s always best to inform your recruiter of the issues you’re having and to do your best to work out a compromise with the clinic director/manager that works for everyone if things aren’t going as expected; but if that isn’t possible, then there’s no shame in ending your contract early and finding something that fits you better, especially if you’re being faced with illegal or unethical situations. Putting in your cancellation notice isn’t something that should be taken lightly because the facility and the travel company will both likely be upset, but if it’s between you leaving early or staying at a job that you’re miserable in (or potentially breaking laws/ethics), then put in your notice!

Don’t Fear Traveling

Bad situations certainly come up as a travel therapist, but if you’re an informed traveler and do your best to ensure that each contract fits you well, then it should be no more common than bad situations at permanent jobs.

The keys to avoiding bad job situations as a traveler are:

  • do your research on travel therapy and the process beforehand
  • allow yourself the largest number of job options possible by working with multiple companies
  • ask the right questions and listen for inconsistencies when interviewing for a travel position

If you do those things then you’ll be well on your way to having a successful and prosperous travel career while avoiding the bad job environments!

If you need help getting started with travel therapy then check out the articles I linked to in this post as well as our Facebook Live videos covering many common questions we get. If you need help finding recruiters you can trust with good companies, fill out this short questionnaire and we’ll do our best to match you with a few great recruiters and companies that should work well for you!

 

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

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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

Whitney Eakin headshot

Travel Therapists on the Road to Financial Independence (Guest Post for APTA National Student Conclave)

This year we will be presenting at the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) National Student Conclave (NSC), October 31-November 1 in Albuquerque, NM.

NSC is a conference for physical therapy students across the country, filled with educational sessions, networking opportunities, and fun activities too!

During our presentation, we will be educating future Doctors of Physical Therapy (DPTs) and Physical Therapist’s Assistants (PTAs) on the ins and outs of travel therapy, as well as how pursuing travel therapy can help set them up for future financial success.

Below is an article we wrote for the APTA blog “The Pulse” as a preview to our session at NSC. You can see the original post here on the APTA Website.


Have you ever wanted to travel the country and get paid to do it? Us too.

Luckily with travel physical therapy, this dream can be a reality.

Discovering travel therapy during our first year of physical therapy school changed our whole life and career trajectory. At first, it seemed like an exciting and prudent thing to do for a few years. We would try out a few different settings, explore the United States (US), and save up enough money to pay off our loans. Then, we would move back home and settle down, starting permanent jobs only a few years after graduation.

But then we had a better idea. Why stop traveling when we truly love the lifestyle it’s allowed us to create?

It’s been over 4 years since we started our journey as travel physical therapists (PTs), and we don’t intend to stop anytime soon.

We’ve been able to create a lifestyle of flexibility that allows us to work in a variety of settings and states, while earning a high income (sometimes twice as much as the permanent PTs working in the same facilities), and taking off as much time as we want and can afford due to our moderate lifestyle to travel both domestically and internationally, as well as spend time at home with our families. We’ve taken full advantage of this flexibility thus far and have no regrets!

Since becoming PTs in 2015, we’ve had some amazing adventures inside and outside the clinic.

We’ve been able to travel to over half of the 50 states, with that number growing even more later this year with a couple of road trips, as well as over 30 countries—for fun, not for work.

We’ve grown professionally and personally by working in several different clinics across the US and meeting some amazing people along the way. This includes trying multiple settings in order to find where our passion, as PTs, truly lies.

And to top it off, we’ve been able to set ourselves up for financial success by contributing heavily toward retirement and investment accounts early in our careers. Many of the PTs we’ve communicated with over the years seem to really struggle with this.

Are you interested in having your cake and eating it too, even if it’s just for 13 weeks or a couple of years? Do you want to learn how you can have amazing adventures, earn higher income, meet new people, pay off your student loans more quickly, explore the country (maybe even the world), all while honing your skills and experiences as a PT?

Then we encourage you to join us this year at the American Physical Therapy Association’s National Student Conclave in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to learn more about the world of travel therapy and how it can help you achieve your personal, professional, and financial goals after graduation!

In the meantime, you can browse our social media pages to see some of our adventures around the world, including our recent 15-week trip to Europe and our 2-week road trip across the US!

Join us October 31 – November 2, 2019 at APTA’s National Student Conclave — the only conference for students, by students. For the best rates register by September 25, 2019.

Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC, and Jared Casazza, PT, DPT, run the website TravelTherapyMentor.com. Connect with them on their blogInstagram, and Facebook.

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!

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.