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Travel Therapist Pay: How to Negotiate for What You’re Worth

If you’re thinking about travel therapy, you’re probably wondering about the sometimes-complicated aspects of travel therapist pay.

If you’ve read through our article about travel therapy tax homes, you’re now familiar with all the fun intricacies of travel therapist pay like the difference between taxable and nontaxable income and maintaining a tax home.

Now that you know that, let’s talk a little bit about what you “should” be making as a traveling therapist, how to negotiate, and other benefits like student loan reimbursement, bonuses, and health insurance.

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What pay is appropriate?

People are often reticent to discuss their pay, which it makes it difficult when you are breaking into a new industry and want to be compensated fairly. Travel therapists are a tight-knit community, however, and usually are willing to share their salary with one qualifier: it can vary wildly.

If you refer back to our article “Four Tips to Know Before Becoming a Travel Therapist,” the “pick two” triangle of travel therapy comes into play here. If it’s a great location and setting, the pay is likely to be lower. If the pay is great, the location or setting might have something lacking.

There is also the situation where pay for an assignment might not sound very high. But if the assignment is in a very low cost of living area, like the Midwest, you may effectively have more income than a higher paying assignment in California.

It’s all relative, and requires careful research each time to ensure you’re getting a good deal.

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Let’s Talk Numbers

It’s hard to even know where to start without having some base of comparison, and you definitely want to have an idea of what is appropriate pay in mind before you start speaking to recruiters. So, at the time of writing this, I did an informal survey of travel therapists and found the following:

OTRs are making between $1400 – $2200 a week, and COTAs are making between $1000 – $1400 a week.

It’s important to note that this is weekly, take-home, after tax pay, which you’ll find is how most travel therapists and recruiters will express pay. When so much of your income is non-taxable, hourly and yearly rates tend to lose a bit of their meaning.

You should also keep in mind that while these numbers are accurate at the time of writing, the market can always change for better or for worse. Right now, COTA jobs have been getting harder to find, so it’s likely average pay may start to lower until the market shifts again.

How do I know I’m getting a good deal?

You’ll notice that there’s a wide variety in those numbers. So how can you be sure the compensation is fair? The best advice I have for this is to use multiple recruiters. Not only will you have more jobs to pick from, you will be able to see what the pay is for a given area and setting at the time of your application.

And politely letting your recruiters know that you are working with multiple companies will ensure the good ones work hard for you and try to get the best pay packages possible, while also discouraging the bad ones from attempting to take advantage of you. Sometimes two different recruiters will even have the same job – which will really allow you to compare which company can offer the better deal.

Once you have received a few pay packages from recruiters, you can take the next step of seeing how the pay is for the area it’s in. Look up housing listings – will the housing stipend cover rent, utilities, furniture, etc? Does the Meals and Incidentals stipend look appropriate for restaurant prices? Is the area a vacation destination where costs are likely to increase at the time of your assignment? These are all important questions to ask.

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A third tool I use when doing my research about a pay package is the GSA per diem rates. These rates represent the maximum a company can provide for daily housing and meals and incidentals stipends. It’s important to realize that you may not be getting the maximum – these are the rates used across all professions. But it is another good tool to use to see what the government determines is reasonable to spend on lodging or food in a given area. Another feature I like about this tool is it reflects changes to housing costs given the season – so vacation destinations will allow higher reimbursement rates during those times.

Does experience matter?

Short answer: sometimes. My advice to travel therapists is to always advocate for yourself by asking, no matter what the question is. The worst thing that can happen is your recruiter saying no. Anecdotally, I have heard of some therapists leveraging their experience this way to negotiate higher pay packages.

Keep in mind that some of these facilities are desperate for a therapist – so they may already be offering the highest pay they can, regardless if their eventual employee is a new grad or seasoned OT.

Where do benefits, bonuses, and perks come into play?

If you’ve looked at travel therapy ads before, you’ve probably seen claims of student loan reimbursement, free vacations, licensure reimbursement, bonuses, etc. And they aren’t exaggerating – there really are companies that offer all of that. While it’s not necessarily too good to be true, remember that the money for perks like these has to come from somewhere.

In general, the travel company receives one bill rate for your services. This is the hourly rate that the travel company charges the facility for your services. Out of this rate comes both your untaxed and taxed pay, your recruiter’s cut, the travel company’s cut, and any of those other perks like student loan reimbursement or vacations. And what many companies end up doing is offering a lower hourly/stipend rate in order to provide you these perks.

However, this is NOT always the case – sometimes a perk may come from the company side of things, like from a marketing or credentialing budget. For example, the bonuses you get when you sign up for Match and Mentor do not come out of your take-home pay.

The best question to ask your recruiter for any given perk is, “Where is this money coming from?” and perhaps the follow-up question “Can it be added to my take home pay instead?”

With a few exceptions, you will pretty much always be better off if you can increase your untaxed stipend pay rather than taking these perks. You will also protect yourself from possibly getting a bonus taxed at a higher rate than your hourly pay.

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One Final Tip

When you first start speaking to recruiters, many will ask you the question “How much are you looking to make?” This is a loaded question, especially when you may not yet feel very well-versed on what is fair travel therapist pay. The best response is to ask the question back to them: “What pay packages do you usually see for a therapist of my experience in this setting and area?”

You can also let them know that you’re looking to get the highest pay possible depending on the setting, location, etc. This question is not necessarily the mark of a bad recruiter, but some may use it to try to low-ball you.

And remember, regardless of what you’ve discussed with a recruiter in the past, you always have the power to say no. Travel therapists are valuable – don’t let anyone pay you less than you’re worth.

Sign up for Match and Mentor to get your free recruiter match, mentor, and free resource!

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We hope this helps answer many of your travel therapist pay questions and that you’re finding our travel therapy series helpful! What travel therapy topics would you like to see discussed next?

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