Pay: How Does it Work and What Should I Expect?

For those hoping to get their feet wet in the travel allied health world, there's a lot of stress around what the pay will look like.  Will it be comparable to what I'm making?  Will I get PTO or benefits?  What does the insurance look like?  A lot of people are interested in knowing how to negotiate the best salary.

After reading through this blog, I'm hoping that you're starting to catch on to the fact that travel work is rather nebulous and there's no one good answer. 

There are a couple ways in which the pay could work, and this totally depends on the company.  Remember, not all companies are hiring you as a traveler, but they're hiring you as a local contractor, so you won't be getting per diem.  For the travel contracts, I've seen pay structures a couple ways:

  • The company essentially has a pool of money for you as the contractor from which you can expect:
    • An hourly wage
    • Per diem - to include meals and incidentals, continuing education reimbursement, travel to and from the assignment, a rental car
    • Housing - either offered as a GSA/CONUS inspired cash value or actual housing.
  • The company bills the facility for most charges - with this, you might expect
    • An hourly wage,
    • A much smaller meals and incidentals per diem
    • Your housing to be fully covered with no money exchange between you and the company
    • Your rental car to be fully covered with no money exchange between you and the company
    • Your travel to and from assignments with no money exchange between you and the company
For a company offering the first type of compensation, the idea is that the lower the hourly wage you receive, the more you can receive in non-tax benefits, and it does work out - but most people tend to forget that the reason you're getting that giant amount of non-tax money is because you're supposed to be duplicating expenses and may eventually have to show the IRS that you are in fact doing this.

This non-tax money will go up or down depending on if you want your travel, continuing education, rental car, and housing covered.  So, let's say you're offered a package of $20/hr plus a weekly non-tax per diem of $600 (I'm making these numbers up).   And let's just pretend that this per diem is to cover your housing, meals and incidentals, and rental car (and as a bonus, the agency will cover travel to the assignment and continuing education).  At 40hrs/week, before tax, you'll make $800 and after tax, you're looking at approximately $584/week.  Add in your non-tax per diem of $600 per week and now your take home is $1184/week after taxes.  So for three months, you'll be looking at $15,392.  Can you cover your bills and expenses on this for those three months?  

Now say you don't want travel to the assignment reimbursed and they were going to reimburse you up to $500 - you might be able to ask for an additional $30ish per week to be tacked on to your per diem over the course of the 13 week assignment (500/13 is 38 - but bear in mind, the $500 wasn't guaranteed, it was an amount UP TO $500).  Same with continuing education - let's say they were going to reimburse you up to $200 for the contract on continuing education and you don't want that - you might be able to see your per diem go up about $15/week.  Again, because it's all essentially the same pool of money, you're essentially coming away with the same overall money, you're just receiving it differently.

With the second type of pay structure, you're basically getting a higher hourly taxable wage than the first company and a much smaller meals and incidentals, but you don't touch any money related to your travel, housing and car (unless you're driving your own car - at which point you get reimbursed for mileage to and from the job) this has its own issues.  Again, in the spirit of pretending, let's say this job pays you $30/hr and you're contracted for 40hrs/week - you're also getting a $40/day meals and incidentals tax free per diem - after taxes, you'll be taking home approximately $1156/week.  So, on paper, it looks like you're pulling in the same, but with this pay structure, you aren't paying for your housing out of a per diem.

This is why I say that pay just depends.

Now, throw on to the pile that pay varies from contract to contract.  You might have noticed that I used the acronym GSA and CONUS earlier - the GSA is General Services Administration.  They set per diem rates for military personnel in the Continental United States (CONUS).  Department of Defense sets reimbursement rates for Alaska and Hawaii.  I have never seen a per diem rate as a travel social worker match the GSA or DoD.  The staffing agencies are not bound to these and the hospitals are not required to abide by them either, so if you look these rates up, use them for a frame of reference, but expect a fun conversation with your recruiter.

Where I have found wiggle room:  with some companies, you can play around with your hourly and non-tax rates almost weekly while on contract.  It's a lot of paperwork, but it's possible.  For instance, on my fourth contract, I found out my coworkers were getting a benefit that wasn't offered to me.  I brought it to my recruiter's attention - they then pulled up those contractors' files and I got a few things added in that the recruiter wasn't aware was an option.  One of the things we did was lower my hourly rate and increase my tax-free (I was skeptical), so I was assured that I could change the pay structure back the next week if it really didn't work for me.  It did.

Be mindful that 15 years of non-travel experience doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get top of the payscale in travel.  Most often, we pretty much all get reimbursed incredibly similarly.  When you accrue experiencing traveling, sometimes you can leverage that into more pay or bonuses as time goes on. 

Bottom line, know your numbers.  Know what your monthly expenses are, including what needs to be duplicated.  Be up front with your recruiter - tell them, "I will not work anywhere for less than x amount of money." Let them know so they can find you work within those parameters.  Hawaii doesn't pay the best, but it's not as bad as everyone thinks.  Alaska pays a higher per diem because the cost of living there is incredibly high (and there's oil money).  DC pays lower (or as my recruiter has previously told me - "it pays boo boo.").  Go in with your eyes open.  If you haven't already contacted a recruiter, contact one and ask questions.  See my posting "Which Agency Should I Choose?" for referral links and emails!


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