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Four Tips to Know Before Becoming a Travel Occupational Therapist

Whether you’re a new grad or seasoned therapist nearing retirement, you’ve probably been curious about travel therapy at some point in your career. It’s hard not to see the flashy promises of doubling your salary and beautiful pictures of exotic locales and wonder if becoming a travel occupational therapist could be right for you.

While I think travel therapy is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and recommend that every therapist should try it at least once, it’s definitely not a decision you want to go into blind.

Here are four things that I’ve learned along the road (sometimes the hard way!) to help you figure out if now is the right time for you travel.

1. You will make more money – probably.

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I’m sure we’ve all seen the ads. “Make $2,000 a week – take home!” or “Get paid to travel!” While this may sound too good to be true, I can confirm that these are real offers, though they don’t come without some caveats.

Generally, the reason that companies are able to offer such high rates is because a significant portion of your income may qualify to be untaxed. The reasoning behind this is that the government allows you to receive what is called stipend pay when you are temporarily traveling for work (loosely defined as working at a job site that is not within commutable distance of your home).

This stipend pay is broken down into two categories: housing and meals/incidentals. So, instead of just making one rate, such as $45 an hour, travelers typically have their pay broken down into their hourly rate (often called a taxable rate) which may be much closer to $20 an hour, along with anywhere between $700 – $1300 in untaxed stipend pay a week.

While this may sound great, and many travelers (and even recruiters!) view this as “free money,” it is income that comes with stipulations.

One, that it must be used toward the expenses designated by the IRS (no booking a cheap studio and socking away the difference to pay off your student loans) and two, that in order to qualify for any stipend pay you must maintain a tax home.

This is a complex and somewhat vaguely defined designation, but for now, all you need to know is that maintaining a tax home will likely require you to duplicate expenses at your permanent residence. So while you may be bringing in $4000 a month just to pay for an apartment at your travel placement, you still have to find a way to pay your mortgage and bills at your tax home in order to qualify for this.

This is a complex subject, so we’ll go further into tax homes and pay packages in general in a future post, but for now, the best advice I have is to talk to an accountant about your personal tax situation to see what the financial implications would be for you. If you don’t yet have an accountant or tax professional, a great resource is traveltax.com.

2. A facility needs a traveler for a reason.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great people as a traveler and have found it to be overall a very rewarding experience. However, this is not guaranteed. Something to keep in mind is that facilities are likely paying big money for you – beyond what you see in your pay package, your recruitment company will also keep a sizable cut (generally anywhere between 20% – 25%).

It’s not always the case, but generally the number one reason a facility will go through a recruitment company in the first place is because they’ve had difficulty hiring or retaining an OT by themselves. Sometimes this is for something innocuous, like needing temporary coverage for a maternity leave, but sometimes it’s due to more sinister factors that may not be obvious until you’re actually working, like a toxic rehab director.

The best advice that I have to guard against this is to thoroughly vet the facility when you have your interview (you’re interviewing them just as much, if not more, than they’re interviewing you) and to have recruiters that you can trust to have your back.

I also like to keep in mind what I like to call the “pick two” triangle of travel therapy: setting, money, and location. If an awesome pediatric clinic is offering to pay $2,300 a week in the coolest part of Chicago, it might be too good to be true. Generally, a facility will offer more money for harder to fill settings (SNFs) or locations that are rural and don’t have much access to occupational therapists. And while it is possible to find more interesting placements like hand therapy or fun locations like San Diego, the pay may be considerably less as a result of having more therapists willing to take these jobs.

3. You should develop rapport with multiple recruiters.

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While some travelers may hit it off with a recruiter right away and prefer to work for one travel company, I always advise new travelers to begin developing relationships with multiple recruiters for a couple reasons.

One, as sad as it is, not every recruiter has your best interests at heart. Remember: they are making money off you, and some people see this as an opportunity to be a sleazy car salesman type who will pressure you to take an assignment that may not be a good fit.

Others may try to keep more money from you by stretching the truth about what reimbursements you qualify for (hint: there are always companies willing to pay for your licensure, relocation, etc). Politely letting your recruiters know that you are working with other companies will ensure that the less-than-savory ones don’t take advantage of you, and that the good ones will work hard to earn your business. It also means that you can easily find out fair pay for an area by comparing packages from different companies.

And, no matter how great one recruiter may be, they aren’t going to have all the jobs, all the time. This may not be a factor if you’re happy to go anywhere, but if you are ever wanting placement in a specific setting or location, casting a wider net is not only useful, but sometimes necessary.

Many travel companies have exclusive contracts with facilities. For example, there is only one company that has a contract with the entire Hawaiian public school system, but some lackluster recruiters may try to dance around this subject.

I do want to impress that having great partnerships with your recruiters is invaluable. Even though you are working with multiple people, make an effort to develop good relationships with all of them. I’d recommend starting a document with your recruiters’ info, and keeping contact with no more than 3-5 recruiters at any given time for simplicity’s sake.

And of course, keep in mind that they are people too, and that their job is hard! While some travelers are shocked to learn how much a recruiter is making off of them, the best recruiters are definitely earning it.

Another resource that I always recommend to travelers, new or seasoned, is nomadicare.com. It’s a free service run by a travel OT that will match you with two vetted recruiters who have verified jobs in the areas or settings you request.

4. Travel therapy requires flexibility and confidence.

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I’ve known many people who discourage new grads from pursuing travel therapy right out of the gate. While I don’t agree with this, I do understand the hesitation. Once again, a facility needs a traveler for a reason, and oftentimes that reason is going to mean that not a lot of training will be provided.

While there definitely are facilities willing to train new grads, there are many more where you will be the only OT and are expected to start treating a full caseload on your first day.

My first travel placement was for a rural school district that hadn’t had an OT for the entire first semester. This meant that not only was I walking into a backlog of evaluations that needed to be completed, I was also required to make up all the missed therapy minutes from the first half of the year. Now, this was all above board and I wasn’t blindsided by this – but it was definitely intimidating as someone whose school experience was limited to 5 days during a Level I fieldwork.

Luckily, I had two years of experience in a pediatric outpatient clinic and a great friend who worked in the school system who let me bug her as much as I needed those first few months. My coworkers were also great and helped me as best they could with any questions that weren’t specific to OT. And there are some truly great Facebook groups aimed at specific practice settings that I still use to this day.

This is all to say that travel therapy isn’t impossible for a new grad, it just requires the right combination of factors. And, whether you’re a new grad or just new to the setting, if you need mentorship, take it into your own hands. Some travel companies may offer mentorship from a current employee, but I would still recommend finding someone personally that you can contact at your convenience.

At the end of the day, the facility is relying on you. So, mentorship aside, be sure that you have the ability to be assertive and decisive in your setting, and also ready for whatever curveballs may be thrown at you.

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I hope that these tips will save you some headaches as you’re considering a travel career! I know that when I first started traveling, the more I learned, the more questions I had, so stay tuned for more detailed articles about tax homes, pay packages, housing, traveling with a friend or a partner, and more.

Travelers! We want to know: If you had one piece of advice to share with a person considering becoming a travel occupational therapist, what would it be? Please share in the comments below.

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4 comments

  • Vilma September 19, 2018   Reply →

    How about COTA positions? How do they compare?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L September 22, 2018   Reply →

      Hi Vilma, I’m not personally as familiar with traveling COTA positions but this Travel Therapy Facebook group has many COTAs in it and will give you some better perspective about the COTA travel market: Travel Therapy Therapists. Hope this helps!

  • darcelle popoff October 1, 2018   Reply →

    thank you !
    this was a nice article and gave me some resources for COTA groups on face book .

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L October 3, 2018   Reply →

      You’re very welcome, and I’m so glad it was helpful for you!

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