What’s the Pay Difference in Travel vs Perm PT jobs?
This is one of the most common questions I get asked by physical therapists or DPT students that are considering travel PT. Everyone knows that generally you make more, but these people want to know if the extra pay is enough to outweigh the hassles of traveling. In previous posts I have written that $1,500/week take home pay is a pretty decent starting point for a new grad travel assignment, but many people don’t understand exactly what “take home pay” means compared to a standard, permanent PT pay check.
Let’s start with some definitions before getting into an example:
Gross pay: This is your total pay before taxes. This is the number that people talk about when they say things like, “My salary is $70,000 per year.” If you’re hourly you can get this number by taking your hourly rate, multiplying by the hours you work per week, and then multiplying by 52 weeks in a year. (i.e. $33.50/hr x 40 x 52 = ~$70,000/year)
Net pay: This is your “take home pay” after all deductions and taxes. These might include: federal taxes, state taxes, Medicare taxes, insurance, etc. Finding what this number would be for you can be a little more difficult unless you are currently working. This is the amount that is directly deposited into your bank account on pay day.
Per diem/stipends: This is money that you get as a traveler that is tax free to reimburse you for things such as housing, meals, and incidentals while on a travel assignment. You only get this money tax free if you make sure you meet the requirements in the tax laws for travelers. For more info on these requirements, I recommend checking out Traveltax.com
Understanding the Difference in Travel vs Perm Pay
In the past I have had people comment on the $1,500/week take home pay for travelers and say, “I can make more than that at a full time job! Why would I travel and make less?” I guess that it is possible you could make more than that as a perm employee, but it is very unlikely, especially as a new grad. Most likely these people are confusing gross pay with net pay. $1,500/week gross pay is definitely possible as a perm PT, but getting that same amount after taxes is much more difficult.
Also, this is probably obvious but, it’s important not to confuse just the amount per paycheck for travelers with the amount per paycheck for perm PT’s: as I have mentioned, travelers get paid weekly, while most perm employees get paid bi-weekly. But for the sake of comparison I’ll be using the weekly pay numbers.
An Example Broken Down
Let’s breakdown $1,500/week gross pay into hourly and salary numbers, and then compare that to $1,500/week net pay to see the true difference.
Gross pay: $1,500/40(hours per week) = $37.50/hour. $1,500 x 52 (weeks per year) = $78,000/year. Depending on setting and location, these numbers may or may not be attainable as a new grad PT. People starting out in a SNF or working in home health will likely make this much or more, while for those starting in outpatient or acute care it may be a little less likely. Ben Fung has some great resources on average salary for full time PT jobs across the country, and this would be a good comparison to look at for new grads deciding between travel and full time jobs.
Net pay: This will be different for everyone depending on the state you live in and your number of federal allowances (dependents). Fortunately there is a great site called Paycheckcity where you can easily calculate this number for yourself. The results I will show here are for my situation (living in Virginia with only one allowance). To get a net pay (take home pay) of $1,500/week, my hourly pay would have to be $57/hour, and my gross pay would have to be $2,280/week. $2,280 x 52 = $118,500/year.
As you can see the difference between gross pay and take home pay is huge ($78,000/year compared to $118,500/year) and this is due to the factoring in of taxes, which are usually much higher than people new to the working world expect.
Now you may be thinking, “Almost $120,000/year as a new grad sounds great, but how likely is it to actually make $1,500/week take home pay as a traveler?” The short answer is, very likely. Whitney and I have been traveling for a year and a half (at the time of the original article… 3 years as of summer 2018) and $1,500/week is the lowest we have ever been paid on a contract so far. Some contracts have paid quite a bit more than this.
Example: Fortunately at one of my first travel assignments, I was offered a full time position after finishing my travel assignment with them, so I can directly compare my travel pay to the perm PT wage offered. For reference, this was an outpatient ortho clinic. My travel take home pay was $1,530/week, and I was offered $35/hour to stay and work there as a perm PT.
Let’s break these numbers down and see what the difference would be in my pay if I had stayed as a perm employee.
$35/hour x 40 hours a week x 52 weeks per year = $72,800/year gross pay. Now I can use Paycheckcity to see what my net pay per week would be on this amount. Filling single in VA with one allowance, $35/hour would equal $983/week net pay (take home pay). That is quite a big difference. I would make $550 less per week after taxes by taking this job as a permanent employee instead of as a traveler. We can also go the other way with the numbers and determine what my hourly pay was at this job and then compare that to the $35/hour offered for permanent employment. Filling single in VA with one allowance, my $1,530/week take home pay would be the equivalent of $58/hour! I would make $23/hour less by taking this job as a full time employee instead of as a traveler.
So What Does It Boil Down To?
These are obviously very big differences in these examples, and it illustrates the very high pay rates that can be achieved with travel assignments compared to full time employment, but I would be lying if I said that this is all you need to consider.
If I had taken a full time job at this clinic, I would have gotten paid vacation of three weeks per year, whereas with a travel assignment, paid vacation doesn’t exist. This can be a huge benefit of being a permanent PT. Paid holidays as a perm employee can also be a consideration, although we have always made sure that we get paid when the clinic is closed on a Holiday and we have to miss work when agreeing to our travel contracts. Also, depending on how you choose to travel, working all 52 weeks in a year as a traveler may or may not be feasible. When we first started traveling, Whitney and I worked 16 months straight with no unpaid days, but doing that is not for everyone. Many people want to take time off between assignments, and this will obviously cause you to earn less for the year.
In my opinion, traveling as a new grad is a great way to gain a variety of experiences as a clinician, in addition to limitless adventures, while also making extra money to pay off loans or contribute to personal investments. On the flip side, you do miss out on some of the perks of being a permanent employee.
From a financial perspective, hopefully these pay breakdowns help in understanding what the actual difference in pay would be. If you have any questions about travel or pay, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below or by sending me a message!
Originally published January 2017, updated August 2018