Why Travel PT Exists… and Why It Shouldn’t

This is the dirty little secret of travel PT. Everybody knows it, why not say it aloud. Everybody with me now:

“Travel PT should not exist.”

…Nor should any other traveling healthcare profession, really. Don’t worry, no employers will take this message to heart like they should – a healthy travel industry will undoubtedly persist beyond this blog.

Why are we allowed the ability to travel all over the country to choice destinations while making more money than the hard working professionals that live and work there year round? We shouldn’t, but many employers are so buried in processes and organizational optimization that they fail to see the easy answer to their staffing issues; A classic case of not seeing the forest through the trees. Pay your permanent employees more and you will need less temporary staffing!

I have to back up just a minute. We couldn’t eliminate the entire industry, some travel assignments are available for exactly the right reasons:

  • Losing an employee who is a new parent to maternity/paternity leave for several months after the birth of their baby.
    • If only paternity leave were a real thing. It’s a unicorn, it doesn’t exist. I guess paternity leave is more of a narwhal than a unicorn, because it exists, but it is very rare and few have actually experienced it. More on what employers could do to keep employees later.
  • An employee suddenly quits. A thorough search for a long-term employee will happen, but the clinic needs help NOW. Good time to hire a traveler while the clinic finds an awesome permanent employee.
  • An employee is lost to an injury for an extended or unspecified length of time – this is a great time to hire a traveler!

The reason most employers hire travelers is not these good reasons. It is because they believe they can’t find consistent staff in their area. False! Wrong! Misnomer! STOP TELLING YOURSELF THAT!!! The reason you can’t find employees is because your compensation package is sub-par. If you would just pay more, people would rearrange their lives to work for you.

I’d like to present a case of one specific employer I heard about recently – actually a group of a couple dozen employers. These hospitals share market information within a group. All of these hospitals are in the same geographic area. They base their pay off of the “market rate” which is an average pay between all the hospitals they compare rates with. The numbers they are looking at are for full-time PTs. So, a full-time PT gets paid a competitive rate versus the other fulltime PTs in the region. If one facility increases their rate of pay, their increase is averaged against the other employers. The thought behind this model is as need for employees increases, the pay goes up in the market – employees must be paid more to meet staffing needs. I’m not so sure this model works like they think it works.

This example sounds fair-and-good until travel PTs are included in the equation – travelers are not included in the calculation. You have a group of hospitals hiring full-time PTs at one rate, hiring travel PTs through agencies for much, much more money, and then not including that rate into their calculation of pay for full-time employees. Effectively, the market system of comparing with other local employers keeps the pay down – no one actually raises their pay, because they all compare to the “market”. Meanwhile, these hospitals hire expensive temp workers and do not add that cost to the calculation. Infuriating.

This is why travel PTs should not exist. If employers would pay their physical therapists a modest amount more, they would not have to hemorrhage money out to recruiting agencies every month to fill their needs, but they do and the travel PT life is a wonderful opportunity for the therapist that can pull it off.

A few years ago, I was accidentally sent an email containing one single recruiter’s billing for a week. The bill was organized by each facility and contained amounts for each traveler provided. There weren’t that many facilities listed, maybe 15. Most of the bills were for a modest number of travelers – 1 to 3 travelers per facility typically. BUT, one particular facility had over $30,000 of pay for travelers in one week!!! I kid you not. (would I kid about this?) I think I could quickly fix that facility’s staffing issue. PAY YOUR EMPLOYEES MORE!

Now, I am not advocating for the end of travel PT. I must repeat that it is a wonderful opportunity. I certainly took advantage of being able to travel the country while working a professional job and think many others should exploit this opportunity as well. Traveling is so cool. GO TRAVEL! Travel all across this country, work in different settings, with different people, in many different places. But, if all the employers smartened up at once and started paying their full-time employees more, the travel market would instantly shrink to less than half its size.

Don’t worry. The travel industry is going to do just fine, I don’t see any big changes happening any time soon. I can only write this because it will make zero impact on any employer – they will keep marching forward keeping their full-time employee rates at just enough for most people to no quit. Take advantage, travel, and enjoy yourself doing it while making much more money.

….and shhhhh! Don’t tell the employers about what I said.

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  1. I foresee the recent SNF CMS reiumbursement changes (and upcoming home health changes) having a huge impact of availability of travel positions (and of the facilities to pay for them)…. Very interested to see how this impacts the industry as a whole. I have a feeling not for the better. I foresee my hospital being overwhelmed by folks who are local SNFs won’t accept (as “high risk” of costing too much and too risky of re-admission)…. but that’s because shady Genesis owns most our local SNFs….

    • I think you said it. If SNFs don’t take the patients, they have to go somewhere – like your hospital.

      I’ve heard of some staffing freezes already (I think an over-reaction), so there may be a brief dip in the travel PT market, but eventually these changes will give way to someone needing additional staff, whether it be the SNFs and HH agencies who froze hiring, or Hospitals that the patients are going to instead.

      In my humble opinion, in the long run, the same number of patients need treatment somewhere.


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