Traveling Techs: The Ups and Downs of Contract Work in the SPD

By Kelly M. Pyrek

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Healthcare Hygiene magazine.

From a “gig economy” embraced by younger generations to one bearing the scars of what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation” at the end of the pandemic, the workforce has endured significant change. As people pursue professional goals and chase personal dreams, they are becoming more mobile than ever before. And while traveling nurses and other migratory occupations have long existed, traveling sterile processing technicians are gaining recognition for helping fuel a move toward contract and transitory employment in the healthcare sector.

A veteran traveling professional who recently accepted a full-time sterile processing department position, Norm Thompson, MBA, CRCST, CER, CHL, notes that job prospects have fluctuated of late due to market forces, the pandemic, and other factors.

“The job market for the traveling tech seems to fluctuate because of COVID-19,” Thompson confirms. “The market also reflects this ‘Big Quit’ trend that has forced facilities to increase the use of travelers. This combination of events has also increased employment possibilities for traveling techs.”

Traveling technician Kymm James, MS, BS, MAT, CRCST, CIS, CHL, says much of the work available consists of crisis-response contracts. “These increase the weekly pay, but they are not country-wide so really it depends on the traveler if this is good or bad. Most of these contracts are on the West Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) with a few in Massachusetts. So, if these are not areas of interest, then it doesn’t really change the job prospects.”

Bringing fresh skill sets and a new pair of eyes to old problems, traveling techs are easily demonstrating their contributions to the SPD.

“Traveling techs can bring a new perspective to any facility,” says Natalie Lind, CRCST, CHL, education director for the Healthcare Sterile Processing Association (HSPA), acknowledging the benefits of hospitals hiring traveling sterile processing techs. “They have often seen more sterile processing systems than the employees at the facility and can share good ideas they have seen in other departments. The hidden benefit of travelers is their insight into different ways to improve practices. The facility needs to help ensure that feedback is welcomed and vetted to determine if it is appropriate for the facility—then, procedures and work practices should be adjusted, and training must occur to keep everyone consistent.”

James cautions that “In the right hospital setting it can add a lot of new perspective and ideas along with the much-needed help. When hospitals take advantage of the knowledge and new perspective of a good traveler it can help increase the knowledge and efficiency of their permanent staff which then translates to a better connection with the OR. When travelers feel like the hospital really wants them there and they aren’t just a body, then they are willing to assimilate and actually work to their potential. However, some hospitals unfortunately just see you as a temporary body and treat you as such barely giving praise or thanking you for even being there. This can make a contract less fulfilling and make a traveler just be there doing the bare minimum until the contract is over.”

Thompson says the utilization of traveling techs allows facilities to address specific staffing needs that may not be as glamorous as these contract workers may imagine or desire. “The traveling tech’s fresh perspective is a misnomer; most facilities want the techs to fill process gaps in the areas of decontamination, and prep and pack. I’d say 98 percent of the time is where the traveler will work. This is the reality of the position, but the other 2 percent of facilities will invite the tech’s fresh perspective. These percentages could be affected by various factors that will increase or decrease production levels (for example, if it’s the tech’s second or third contact at a particular facility and trust has been established).”

As advantageous as it can be for institutions to hire traveling techs, there is the justifiable concern that these workers will not be familiar with an institution’s policies and procedures, may have significant learning curves, and may bring with them bad habits from previous jobs.

“There is an old saying that if you have seen one sterile processing department, you’ve seen one sterile processing department,” says Lind. “In other words, they are all different. We may follow the same standards, guidelines, and regulations, but we have different physical layouts, instruments, processing equipment, procedures—and we provide different services. Usually, when a facility brings in travelers, they have been short-staffed and there is a tendency to want to get the travelers functional as soon as possible. That does not mean that travelers can begin work without a validation of their skills and knowledge and an introduction into the department’s ways. Competencies are a good way to assess a traveler’s skills and understanding of basic work practices. Assigning a mentor to help identify the specific practices of the department can also be helpful. Sometimes travelers bring bad habits, and other times they can help identify bad habits at the facility. SPDs should create a way to communicate “differences” in practice. The goal should be to elevate everyone’s practice in a respectful way. The goal for us all should be patient safety.”

James agrees. “This can affect patient safety because if things specific to the facility which help the daily flow are not communicated, then this may lead to confusion with sets being set up incorrectly or priority items not being ready because the traveler did not know this was a necessity at the facility. We all know about priority with things related to trauma, but I have found in some assignments there are non trauma-related things needed or set up in a way to expedite for the operating room’s purposes. But if this is not communicated, we won't know.”

“The position of a traveling tech is a unique one and with it comes constant adaptation to each institution’s policies and procedures,” Thompson says. “The tech’s ability to adjust and react to each contract is paramount and bad habits reflex each tech individually. Now, these bad habits do exist and if discovered, could possibility end the contract and or employment with the hiring agency.”

Facilities can protect their interests by putting in place specific safeguards in place when hiring temporary personnel, but Thompson says that in his experience, these generally do not exist.

“The traveling tech position can be a brutal experience depending on the facility,” Thompson says. “The contracted employee is without employee rights or legal representation. For example, I have witnessed a tech’s contract being canceled because he or she did not want to change the contractual start time. The facility’s manager reported to the hiring agency that this individual ‘disrupted the department and did not want to change his start time.’ The tech not only lost the contract but was fired by the hiring agency without proof of the incident. I have traveled for five years. The traveling tech’s position is at the mercy of the facility.”
James says respectful communication is essential. “Communicate with them as equals within the facility like their own employees. Don’t force or discipline saying things like, ‘That’s not how we do it here,’ or ‘You are doing it wrong,’ or ‘I know you may have been taught that way but we don’t do that.’ Instead, let us know the ‘why’ behind things and make sure they actually follow the standards because what we won’t do is risk certification and patient safety just because the facility wants us to.”

Traveling techs are responsible for maintaining their skill sets. “It is the tech’s responsibility to maintain their certification and invest in their education,” Thompson confirms. “The tech has a vast amount of information [and educational opportunities—including many online options] and most facilities will offer continuing education that must be utilized by the tech.”

James notes that while traveling techs have the same education and certification responsibilities as full-time techs, “Where we differ is being able to adapt quickly to new sets and new daily routines every three months.”

Despite the desire on the part of both the contract worker and the healthcare institution for a position to work out satisfactorily, there is the potential for contracts to go sideways; facilities should invest in the time and effort required to assemble solid traveling tech-related policies and procedures (P&Ps).
“Policies and procedures that fall in line with the standards we all need to abide by is all that’s needed,” James emphasizes. “That is universal. Anything facility-specific needs to be communicated at minimum the first day on assignment, but at least within the first week. Some facilities have the traveler go through orientation, which is okay, but it needs to be specific to the facility’s SPD to be worth it. Some facilities just throw you on the field and we rely on our knowledge unless the OR complains, then we are told which is not the proper way to do this at all. The more facility-related specifics we know up front, the better equipped we are to not disrupt the flow of the OR.”

“This issue is an ongoing discussion among traveling techs throughout the industry,” Thompson says, referring to standardized P&Ps. “If this were to happen, it would take a mix of facilities management, supervisors, hiring agencies and techs in the development of this schematic. The need for this type of out-of-the-box thinking is necessary to recruit and retain the best traveling techs. As it stands now, it’s a dog-eat-dog industry and not always a win-win situation. “
To that end, while it is hoped that traveling techs can blend into a healthcare institution’s SPD seamlessly, the truth is that difficulties exist. What might not be acknowledged widely is the potential rivalry between traveling techs and stationary workers.

“There should not be a sense of competitiveness between stationery and traveling techs,” Lind says. “It is not uncommon for stationary staff to feel resentful of the wages paid to travelers or other differences in responsibilities that go with the traveler’s jobs. Instead of being resentful of the wages and perks awarded to travelers, I’d suggest looking at the wage disparity as educational for the facility’s administration. This experience has helped them realize that the skills and knowledge required to work in sterile processing are unique, and it is not a job that just anybody can do. It’s a good talking point when negotiating future compensation packages for stationary technicians. In most cases, stationery staff have been working short-handed for some time, and travelers should be viewed as a teammate to help share the workload. There should be collaboration, not rivalry.”

Thompson notes, “The rivalry exists because of various factors, but pay is typically the most common factor. The work environment and employee relations are additional factors and can create a toxic or positive work environment.”

James emphasizes that traveling techs can help evolve the profession overall, if given the opportunity to be treated as equals and recognized for their contributions.
“It hurts when facilities and management make it a point to constantly treat the traveler as a traveler versus a team member at that time,” she says. “We should be out in the daily rotations doing what the fulltime techs do so that we aren’t seen as outsiders. The more we are included the more fulltime staff don’t feel threatened or that we are just passing through. By traveling we bring a wealth of knowledge and fresh eyes that can help facilities that may be looking for help to make their department more efficient or whatever the case may be. But they need to be open to our ideas and help for the experience to be beneficial for both sides.”
James continues, “The more facilities alienate us and treat us as temporary help to do grunt work that their fulltime employees don’t want to do. The more we will shy away from giving our all and truly making the experience helpful and worthwhile. Treat us as equals and appreciate the help and we will do the same.”

Despite the inherent challenges some traveling techs may prefer a nomadic lifestyle for the duration of their career, while others may eventually settle down.
“That’s an individual choice and will vary, but it’s a great opportunity for those who chose to except the challenge -- and it is a challenge,” Thompson says. “The tech will gain a wealth of knowledge that will assist him or her in their career as a sterile processing professional. The trenches are full of excitement and experiences, but techs who take on the challenges need to be prepared to adjust/react and fill their toolbox with valuable learning opportunities.”

James says it depends on the traveler. “In my case, I did not want to stay in my home state so traveling gives me the opportunity to explore other places and facilities to find the right fit. Some travelers are chasing the money, so they travel for that; some want to do it for a little while for the experience and then settle. Some start and don’t like it so they settle back where they are from. It just depends.”

Balch (2021) explains that wages are partly responsible for driving the Great Resignation, and that this could benefit sterile processing techs: “The labor market is firmly on the side of employees currently, meaning you now have more leverage than you had even a year or two ago. With the low barrier of entry to the sterile processing field (most states still do not require any form of certification or schooling to apply for the role), it has historically been fairly easy for a hospital to replace technicians if or when they decide to leave. In the shadow of the Great Resignation, however, employers now know it is extremely difficult to recruit new talent for this unique job description. Because of this, human resources departments across the country are scrambling to entice their current sterile processing team members to stick around by offering long-overdue wage increases, sometimes even above the local market rate. The trends around wage increases do not stop with our full-time, permanent employees. Due to the vacancies mentioned above, combined with growing surgical volume along seasonal peaks, traveling sterile processing technicians are also experiencing historically high rates for 13-week contract positions, ranging anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500-plus per week.”

Balch (2021) adds, “In addition to general wage increases, we are also seeing a spike in competitive bonus and recruiting packages for sterile processing technicians and department leadership. These sign-on bonuses range anywhere from $1,000 up to $10,000 and are now being added to relocation assistance for certain strategic roles that are even harder to fill within the narrow skill set of sterile processing subject matter expertise. Prior to the Great Resignation, this level of sign-on bonus for nursing professionals was not uncommon, but sterile processing professionals were often excluded from the programs. This dynamic has now shifted in our favor as facilities are becoming more aware of the critical impact that our teams have on their ability to keep surgical volume flowing in a safe and efficient manner.”

Balch W. Five Reasons Why the Great Resignation Could Be Great for Your Sterile Processing Career. 2021. Accessed at: