Your Occupational Therapy Salary Guide (2019)
Occupational therapy is considered one of the most fulfilling and flexible careers within healthcare. Not only do OTs help dramatically improve the overall quality of patients’ lives, we also earn a pretty solid income in the process!
As much as we pride ourselves on being a client-focused field, we do need to consider our own health, though—and that includes our financial health—in order to provide the best possible care.
I wrote this article to provide an overview of salaries in the OT world, so that you can get a better lay of the land. Whether you’re still looking into OT as a profession, considering options for your first job, or simply searching for insight as to how your pay stacks up, this article aims to give you an idea of how the occupational therapy profession pays.
Salary can be a very complicated topic, especially with much of our pay being dictated by reimbursement and market saturation. With increased focus on outcomes-based (rather than fee-based) reimbursements, I recognize that we’re in a time of flux. So don’t worry—I will be regularly updating this article!
Important: I am also working on a COTA salary guide. If you would like to be notified when it come out, please sign up for my mailing list via the chat box in the lower right!
Average OT Salary ($76,448)
Average OT salary (2019)
We have calculated the average OT salary in 2019 to be $76,448.
This is our own calculation, and we based it on an average of multiple reputable sites’ findings, which we will discuss below.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with what the average OT salary really is. I’m going to be including many sources in this article. That’s because each salary resource collects its data using its own methods. Each resource also looks at different factors. For example, some websites might break down salaries between states (or even cities), while others break them down per region or per experience level. Other sites focus more on experience level or other factors.
Keep in mind, as well, that each source has its own collection bias, based on who chooses to submit data, who uses the resource, and how the data itself is collected. And we have based our calculations on an average of all the data we found, some of which is presented as median vs. mean findings.
Median vs. mean OT salary
Before we dive into the data, I also want to note that “median salary” is different from “mean salary” (also known as “average salary”).
A median salary means that, when all the salaries are laid out from lowest to highest, there is usually a cluster where most salaries lie. At the center of that cluster lies the median—or middle—of that list of salaries. You might have some outliers that make a ton or very little, but they won’t skew the median.
The mean (average) literally takes all of the salaries, adds them up, then divides them by the total number of responses. That means that those outliers (meaning the very low, or very high, salaries) could very easily skew the mean. And this is important to consider, because there are quite a few OTs who only work part-time or PRN, and their annual salaries are lower for that reason alone, not because they’re making a terrible hourly wage.
With that out of the way, here are what various resources list as the average (or median, in some cases) salaries for OTs. I have listed sources in alphabetical order.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
The AOTA is the professional organization for the OT field. AOTA runs its own salary survey and updates it every few years. The last year it did so was 2015.
According to the AOTA, the median annual pay for OTs in 2015 was $70,000.
However, the findings reveal that experience is a big factor in how much you can earn as an OT. For example, a brand-new OT with under a year of experience will make a median salary of $59,000. An experienced OT with six to nine years of experience will make a median salary of $69,000. And an OT with 25+ years of experience will earn a median salary of $80,000.
Salary By Years of Experience
The graphic above shows that, according to the The AOTA Salary and Workforce Survey, occupational therapists (OTs) earn a median salary of $59,000 right out of school. After just 6 years in the field, OTs see a $10,000 increase.
Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS)
The BLS is a subset of the US Department of Labor. That’s the federal agency that keeps tabs on the labor industry. It’s considered an independent statistical agency, which is why many people choose to use its data as their primary reference for salaries. The BLS does collect data fairly regularly, so you can usually find accurate data from within the last two years or so.
According to the BLS, the median annual pay for OTs in 2017 was $83,200* per year.
*Despite the calculation being median vs. mean, it’s close enough to other sites’ calculations for means. So I decided to include it in our calculation.
Glassdoor is a reputable career platform where job seekers can learn about various companies, read and write reviews for facilities, research interview questions for specific jobs and organizations, and search for jobs.
According to Glassdoor, the mean annual pay for OTs as of 2019 is $80,782.
OTSalary.com was created by Kate Washa Boyd, an OT with a passion for helping other OTs earn what they deserve. Her website collects data from visitors (so it’s obviously skewed data reflecting only people who have been to her site) in an attempt to improve visibility into OT salaries.
This website is a standout because you can sort the data by years of experience, job type, state, education level, etc. The best way to use it is to download the information so you can sort it yourself!
We ran some numbers based on her spreadsheet. Here’s what it looks like:
According to OTSalary.com, the mean salary of OTs who reported working full-time (40+ hours per week) is $70,860.
When employees working fewer hours than 40 per week were factored in, the number was closer to $65,000.
Personally, I recommend that you pay close attention to the data yielded by PayScale. This site is one of the earliest salary-oriented websites, and it pioneered the use of big data and unique matching algorithms to clarify the waters in the compensation world.
Please note PayScale gives lower median annual salaries for full-time OT practitioners, but the salaries are calculated based on respondents to a PayScale survey, which I assume is a smaller pool.
What is particularly helpful on this page is an overview of salaries from some of the big employers like Rehab Care, Aegis, Fox Rehab, etc.
According to PayScale, the average annual salary of an occupational therapist (OT) is $65,418 per year.
Salary.com is another older player in the compensation game, but we’ve noticed that it always tends to give higher numbers than we hear anecdotally. And this is across the board, not just for occupational therapy, so I recommend you take this number with a rather large grain of salt.
According to Salary.com, the average OT salary in the United States is $86,326 as of March 28, 2019.
I do like that the site gives a clear caveat, noting that pay rates can vary widely based on things like education, certifications, additional skills, and years of experience in the profession.
I checked UpDocMedia, a website known in the PT world for having very accurate data about physical therapy salaries in its Pulse publication. The Pulse has a more modest representation of pay for OTs, but its numbers are most definitely in line with the findings of other sites.
As you can see, the sample size is pretty low, but OTs on average came out to earn $75,000, which is in line with other sites’ findings, as well as quite close to our own calculation!
Lastly, I downloaded WebPT’s OT Salary Guide, and found that they report OT salaries as an average.
According to WebPT, OTs in April, 2016 made a mean annual wage of $80,000.
Do OTs make a lot of money?
The term “a lot of money” is relative, and it certainly is based on your frame of reference. For example, according to BLS, in May 2017, the median annual wage for all workers was $37,690. OT salaries, according to our calculations and BLS’ calculations, are more than double that rate.
That said, when you compare OT salaries to those of radiologists or software engineers, we don’t make a lot of money.
Keep in mind that your salary as an OT is only part of the big financial picture. What might feel like a lot of money to someone with no debt might feel like very little when you have over 200k in loans to pay back.
Generally speaking, OTs do make a lot of money as new graduates, but income doesn’t tend to climb as much, nor as rapidly, as it does in other industries.
How much can a new grad OT make straight out of school?
It’s not easy to give a simple answer of what a new OT can make right out of grad school. Depending on where you work, the setting you choose, the patient population you treat, the hours and days you work, and how much you negotiate, you can make wildly different salaries.
According to the AOTA, a new grad OT will earn a median salary of $59,000 per year.
However, you can certainly make more if you choose a setting like SNF or Home Health, or especially if you opt to spend some time as a travel OT, which we’ll discuss more below.
Highest paying OT jobs
Many new OTs are saddled with increasing debt, so it’s no surprise when people are curious to learn about the OT jobs with the highest salaries.
According to WebPT’s OT Salary Guide, research and development (which can be considered non-clinical), home health, and skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) offer the highest pay to OTs.
Keep in mind that patient population (and their respective payers) will also factor in; for example, Medicare reimbursements rates tend to be higher than Medicaid rates.
Lowest paying OT jobs
Similarly, it’s always wise to know which settings and patient populations pay the least. While this data was harder to pin down, I have heard anecdotally that settings such as mental health and adult day care tend to offer the lowest compensation.
Keep in mind, though, that these settings tend to be highly fulfilling and often lack the productivity pushes you’ll find in other settings.
Can OTs expect to have salary growth across their careers?
The short answer is, “sort of.”
While OTs are often pleased by their higher-than-average starting salaries (compared to peers at the same age), they’re sometimes dismayed by unimpressive raises—or no raises at all. This can be very frustrating for OTs with high debt burdens, especially as they watch their friends who didn’t go to graduate school surpass their earnings in several years.
How have OT salaries changed over the years?
We were able to manually extract data from BLS spanning the last 21 years. Incidentally, you can see that the data is a bit all over the map. Salaries initially climbed a bit, then tanked around 2006, then climbed again, had a brief dip, and then continued to climb.
Much like home values, the stock market, or anything else one might monitor for years, the median OT salary certainly increased during the last 20-plus years, rising from $52,458 to $83,200 in that time. However, if you consider the increase in terms of inflation, there has not been significant growth.
For example, the figure below shows that the inflation-adjusted rate for the 1998 median salary is $80,813, which is only around three thousand dollars less than the current rate.
So, it’s probably safe to say that OT salaries have remained stable over the years.
Average OT Salary
How do OT salaries compare to PT salaries?
If you’re trying to decide between physical and occupational therapy as a profession, don’t stress too much. We did the same calculation based on data below, and we determined that the average PT salary is $79,900. Let’s look at where we found that data. As with OT salaries, we created an average of the available data from the following sources:
American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
The APTA is the professional organization for physical therapy practitioners. According to its data, the median salary for a physical therapist is $85,000.
Salaries vary based on position, years of experience, degree of education, geographic location, and practice setting.
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS)
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for physical therapists was $86,850 in May 2017.
According to Glassdoor, the average salary of a physical therapist in 2019 is $70,982.
According to PayScale, the average pay for a PT is $69,981 per year.
According to Salary.com, the average pay for a PT in the US as of March, 2019 is $85,643.
According to UpDocMedia, the average physical therapist salary is $73,623.
According to WebPT, the average physical therapist salary is $87,220.
Again, physical therapists really only earn about $3,000 more per year than OTs, on average. Thus, I highly recommend that you pursue the profession that appeals to you the most, especially since factors like educational level, geographic location, and experience level can also impact your earning potential.
How can I make more money as an OT?
One of the reasons you might have come upon this article was to make more money. There are plenty of ways to increase your earning potential as an OT. Let’s explore some of them.
Pick a high-paying setting
Generally speaking, SNF (skilled nursing facility) and HHOT (home health occupational therapy) settings pay higher than schools and hospitals.
In May 2017, the median annual wages for occupational therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
Median OT Salaries by Industry
• SNF = Nursing care facilities
• Home Health = Home healthcare services
• Offices = Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists
• Hospitals = Hospitals; state, local, and private
• Schools = Elementary and secondary schools; state, locals, and private
It’s not a guarantee, but some hospitals do pay more for more specialties. However, most hospitals tend to base it more on experience. You might be able to negotiate with smaller facilities. (CHT, etc.)
Work in one of the highest-paying states
According to the BLS, Nevada, New Jersey, California, Arizona, and Washington, D.C. are great pics. Keep in mind, though, that Nevada and Arizona have much lower cost of living (overall) than California and Washington D.C.
I am frequently asked why certain states pay more than others. That’s not an easy question to answer, but the general consensus seems to be a combination of reimbursement contract rates being higher, cost of living being higher, and market saturation of OTs being lower.
Consider non-clinical OT work
Non-clinical occupational therapy jobs are all the rage these days, and that’s partly because they tend to pay better than clinical work. For example, according to AOTA, academia pays even better than SNFs and home health, and WebPT reports that going into research and development settings also trumps the HHOT and SNF settings.
Median OT Annual Salaries by Work Setting
Keep in mind this is not a hard-and-fast rule; plenty of non-clinical roles pay less than clinical ones. But, I’ve listed a few below that tend to pay more than clinical work, so feel free to explore these if you’d like to up your earning potential!
Sales - OTs can work as clinical educators, clinical specialists, account managers, and sales representatives.
Recruiting - OTs (particularly ones with a background in travel OT) can become recruiters, earning high commissions from successful placements.
Rehab Liaison - While OTs will generally earn about what they would in a clinical role as a liaison, these roles sometimes offer bonuses and performance incentives that boost base pay.
Consider travel OT
Travel OT positions are almost always going to pay more than permanent roles. However, the travel industry is shady, so I recommend that you work with Nomadicare so that you don’t get taken advantage of. Laura Latimer, founder of Nomadicare, is an OT who was sick of being exploited by the slimy travel world. She came up with a really cool platform that vets recruiters and matches them with travelers.
Her platform helps you to make the most amount of money possible as a traveler. As an affiliate and a friend of Laura’s, I completely support her and believe in what she is doing with Nomadicare. Check out her site here!
Working PRN (or per diem) can certainly help to boost your pay, as employers tend to issue higher hourly rates to therapists who don’t receive PTO or other benefits. If you’re crafty and don’t need health insurance through your employer, you can often make quite a bit more per hour by accepting a PRN role.
The caveat, of course, is that there is no guarantee of hours; many PRN jobs are notorious for calling therapists off at the last minute.
Negotiate your OT salary
I’ve lost so much sleep over negotiating my salary, but I truly believe negotiating for what you’re worth is essential to finding satisfaction in your OT career.
Here are just a few reasons to negotiate your OT salary:
You will be happier with a contract in which you helped to set the parameters.
You will quickly learn invaluable information about how the company treats employees.
Your skillset is worth it!
In the end, it's like my friend Emily says, "Don't ask, don't get."
Before we get into the nitty gritty of negotiation, I want to show you a quick success story. If you have a success story from negotiating your salary, I would love to hear it in the comments!
How to negotiate your OT salary
Negotiating a proper salary is not that hard. You simply need to state the facts and have a solid position for asking for more money.
A good salary negotiation is founded in research.
Gather as much information as you can about comparable positions. Unfortunately, many cities are saturated with OTs, and other locations simply don’t have that many OT jobs. You might be the best OT on earth, but you cannot earn more than what the market can support.
I recommend that you use the resources we cited in this article to help you with negotiation. Other factors to consider include years in practice, setting and patient population, and where you live.
Sometimes, a job simply won’t budge on salary. It can be frustrating, especially when you feel that you’re not being offered a salary commensurate with your value, and you might think that means you have to accept an offer that’s not ideal. Don’t despair—you can often negotiate in non-salary areas, including:
Unpaid leave for already scheduled trips
Mutually beneficial continuing education
The ideal schedule
AOTA and NBCOT membership
Loan repayment options
A mentorship plan
Additional negotiating resources
I found the StoryBrand Podcast Episode #26 - 5 Strategies That Will Make You a Strong Negotiator extremely helpful in normalizing the act of negotiation.
I also give more details about my own negotiating experiences in my post, Occupational Therapy Job Negotiations.
I’ve done my best to give you the lay of the land in terms of what type of OT salaries are out there, and what you’ll earn based on your unique circumstances.
However, I also want to point out that salary is only one of the many factors you should consider if you’re pursuing an OT career. After all, at the end of the day, you need to decide if occupational therapy is work you will enjoy. I strongly encourage you to read our Guide to Occupational Therapy to get a full sense of our scope of practice.
If you are actively looking for work right now, I encourage you to check out our Guide to Finding the Best OT Job, for a holistic sense of how salary factors into your job hunting process.