You didn’t choose this profession for the paycheck. You became an occupational therapist because you enjoy helping people improve the quality of their lives—and that’s the way it should be. Still, you shouldn’t completely ignore the dollar amount on your paystub. Money might not be your main motivator, but you deserve fair compensation for the quality of therapy you provide. But determining what’s fair can be tricky, because there are a lot of forces at play. So, what factors go into determining OT salary? Here are a few important variables to consider:

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1. Experience matters.

According to this PayScale report, occupational therapists with more than 20 years of experience earned an average hourly income of $43.40, whereas entry-level therapists in their first year of work earned only $33.88. OTs with one to four years of experience earned $35.42; OTs with five to nine years of experience earned $38.74; and OTs with ten to 19 years of experience earned $41.31. 

2. Demographics drive demand.

Remember the supply and demand curve from that Intro to Economics class you took in college? Well, it applies to occupational therapy, too. The greater the demand for a service, the higher the price for that service—especially if the supply is low. So, if you practice in an area where there are lots of people who need occupational therapy—a place with a large elderly population, for example—but relatively few OTs, your salary is more likely to fall above the national average.

And while we’re on the subject of geography, remember that average salaries vary from location to location due to a variety of regional factors such as cost of living and insurance reimbursement rates. For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2019,  OTs in Nevada made an average annual salary of $105,450, whereas OTs practicing in Puerto Rico made $39,130. (Check out the BLS site for more information on OT salary averages by state and region.)

3. Setting affects salary.

The type of facility in which you practice also affects your earning potential. According to BLS data, OTs working in child day care services make an average of $108,650—which is $22,400 more than the national average of $86,210. The average salary for therapists working in continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly also comes in well above the national average at $93,870. On the opposite end of the spectrum, OTs practicing in educational settings average $77,480—about $10,000 below the national average.

4. It pays to travel. 

The national average salary for traveling occupational therapists is $89,174—about $3,000 higher than the general national average—and that often comes with additional perks like paid housing, non-taxable living stipends, mileage reimbursement, and assignment completion bonuses. If you’ve got the itch to get out and explore different parts of the country—or you’re just not sure what kind of setting you want to work in—travel OT is a fantastic option. Just make sure that before you sign on any dotted lines, you fully research the placement company you contract with and the assignment offers you receive—and pay special attention to things like health benefits, vacation time, sick leave, and assignment termination policies. The company should assure you that if you get stuck in a locale you don’t like, not only will your contract allow you to switch facilities, but also the company will act quickly to relocate you.

These items are just a sampling of things to consider as you contemplate compensation in the occupational therapy industry. What factors do you think are most important when it comes to determining a reasonable OT salary? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.