Setting Yourself Up for Relief Work

Tosha K. Starke, DVM, All Four Paws Veterinary Relief, Manassas, Virginia

Kathy Wainwright, DVM, Capital Area Veterinary Services, Arlington, Virginia

Lance M. Roasa, DVM, MS, JD, The Roasa Law Group, Omaha, Nebraska

Michelle D. Krasicki-Aune, MBA, BS, CVT, Vet Teams, Coon Rapids, Minnesota

ArticleLast Updated September 201812 min readPeer Reviewed
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Relief services are a thriving segment of the veterinary profession. Hiring a relief veterinarian allows associates and practice owners to be away from the practice knowing their patients are cared for and clients have access to needed services. Working relief comes with benefits and challenges that are different from standard clinical practice, and opportunities exist for both veterinarians and veterinary nurses. We explore several of the many facets of veterinary relief work.

What Are the Options?

Tosha K. Starke, DVM, All Four Paws Veterinary Relief, Manassas, Virginia

Veterinary relief work offers many benefits (eg, flexible scheduling, the opportunity to work with a range of team dynamics, independence, a variety of professional experiences). There are many compelling reasons to make the leap from associate veterinarian to independent contractor, but several factors must be considered before making the change.

Challenges

A relief veterinarian needs confidence and autonomy and should have at least 3 to 5 years of full-time practice experience. He or she also needs cognitive flexibility and a high degree of emotional intelligence to meet the inherent challenges (eg, variability of staff training, including different personalities and experience levels; different equipment; limited drug selections) within each practice. However, working with a variety of teams and learning how to think outside the box can be rewarding. (See Relief Work: One Veterinarian’s Personal Path.)

Networking is Key

Relief work can have a variable level of demand and be seasonally dependent. Staying connected with other veterinary professionals is key to staying relevant and mitigating seasonal lulls. Networking with practice owners and associates at local veterinary medical association meetings and conferences, and monitoring employment ads to identify practices that may need relief services can be helpful.

Drug and laboratory company representatives, traveling surgeons, and traveling ultrasonographers are great referral resources. Set up a lunch meeting and discuss how both parties can benefit from a business relationship. Using marketing strategies (eg, a booth at a local conference) is good, but word of mouth is inexpensive and simple, with a potential big payoff.

Tax Considerations

The tax burden of an independent contractor is higher than that of a W2-employee. Keep diligent expense records and track mileage—commutes can be lengthy, especially if driving back and forth from rural communities—to reduce tax burdens. Hire a tax professional to ensure the business structure and taxes are calculated accurately.

Legal Advice

Consult a legal professional to decide what type of business entity is best based on cost, complexity, and state regulations. A legally binding contract is vital to protect the business and must specify the hourly rate and how it is billed (eg, by the quarter-hour), additional fees for travel time, and the cancellation policy. These specifications clarify the professional relationship between client and contractor, protecting against loss of income. (See Legal Considerations for Relief Work.)

Alone or in a Group?

Relief work can be done on your own or through a group (ie, a company that specializes in providing relief personnel), and there are advantages to both situations. (See Relief Work: Positives & Negatives.) Working relief in a group can provide many of the same benefits as an associate in a practice while retaining the freedom of scheduling and job selection inherent to an independent contractor status. A relief group can become a go-to resource that meets practice needs with the assurance of better availability of coverage and consistency of veterinarians who practice high-quality medicine and have affable personalities. Even if the primary relief veterinarian is unavailable to cover a shift, the practice can be assured that another member of the group will perform similarly and benefit the practice in much the same way. Working relief on your own means you are your own boss and allows you to have control over your own schedule.

(See Veterinary Technicians Can Do It, Too.)

Conclusion

Relief work, particularly in the context of working with a small group of trusted, like­-minded relief veterinarians, can be rewarding and a positive change from working as an associate veterinarian. If the prospect of relief work is enticing, move forward while keeping in mind the considerations mentioned above. Good luck!

Relief Work: One Veterinarian’s Personal Path

Kathy Wainwright, DVM, Capital Area Veterinary Services, Arlington, Virginia

Veterinarians are fortunate to have versatile degrees that allow them to work in several capacities including with horses, in drug research, with cats only, or in public health. Another avenue many veterinarians consider at some point in their career is relief work. It may be during a transition between long-term jobs, exploring a new location before making a commitment, or even as a permanent career. Those who try relief work, either short- or long-term, usually find it beneficial.

I chose to step into relief work when my life was at a time of transition. The practice where I had been working was sold, which caused a lot of change. I entered relief work with a high level of anxiety and not knowing what to expect. I worried: Will there be enough work? Will I be able to cover my monthly expenses? Will I be able to adapt to a different schedule every week? Will I feel comfortable with the culture, protocols, and policies of each practice where I might work?

I also had to consider and critically evaluate the different options available (ie, work with a relief service, venture out on my own, become a a semipermanent staff veterinarian at a practice needing someone 1 to 2 days a week).

To help alleviate this stress, I recommend assessing 2 areas before considering relief work.

1. Financial Considerations

Do you feel comfortable with the potential financial changes and will your household finances be able to sustain the uncertainties of relief work?

When I started relief work my spouse had a stable job with health insurance benefits that covered us both. We were renting an apartment, and although we wanted to save money for a down payment on a house, we were not in a time commitment nor did we feel the routine pressure of home ownership. Also, we lived near many veterinary school alumni who could serve as potential clients. These circumstances helped the transition feel a little less daunting financially.

Give serious thought to your financial circumstances and personal budget. Sit down, make a budget, and determine where you stand financially. Will you be able to pay your bills, loans, and health insurance if you cannot find work for a few months? You may need a consistent full-time associate position, part-time work, or to join a relief service as a more stable alternative. You may also be ready to go solo.

2. Professional Demands

Can you adapt to the demands of veterinary relief?

Relief work requires a huge degree of flexibility day-to-day and a willingness to acclimate to different surroundings. Some days I work mornings; other days I work nights or the swing shift. When I step into a practice I must mesh with the practice culture and client base. Each practice has different medications in inventory and sedation protocols. I have to quickly learn medical record programs and interact well with different personality types.

Communication is critical in order to have positive experiences and feel comfortable relying on each practice’s team. Learning and adapting to the practice’s culture and understanding the expectations of each practice’s team members, clients, and owners is important.

Conclusion

I have been happy over the past 3.5 years since I entered into relief work. I have the freedom to be my own boss and can plan around important events with family and friends. However, even with that flexibility, I am always and will always be at the mercy of the needs of local veterinary practices. Think about it and if you feel confident—take the leap.

Legal Considerations for Relief Work

Lance M. Roasa, DVM, MS, JD, The Roasa Law Group, Drip Learning Technologies, Omaha, Nebraska

Consider these legal issues before starting relief work.

  • Determine if the position is classified as an employee or independent contractor (IC). Relief work does not automatically imply an IC relationship. Misclassifying the relationship is a common mistake and can be costly for both the practice and relief veterinarian. There are IC classification tax incentives for the practice and the relief veterinarian (see Incentives to Classify Independent Contractor Positions), but misclassifying the relationship can result in back taxes and costly fines.1 The IRS has developed complex tests (ie, behavioral control, financial control, type of relationship) to help classify personnel relationships.2 

    • The behavioral control test looks at who can instruct, train, direct, and control the person performing the work. The less control the practice has over the work, the more it appears to be contracting with outside businesses.

    • The financial control test examines who has the investment and business at stake. Taking on financial risk makes a worker look like a separate business, which is the hallmark of an IC.

    • The type of relationship test reviews how both parties perceive their interaction. A formal contract, the absence of benefits, and a short-term relationship all point to an IC.3

IC’s have their own business, independent of the business they serve (eg, a construction contractor hired for a specific project or task). An IC sets prices, manages the schedule, maintains equipment, and is responsible for the financial risk if the business fails.3

Employees are part of the parent business, do not assume financial risks, and rely on the employer for scheduling, equipment, fee collection, and clientele.3 

  • There are many gray areas between an IC and an employee. Check the IRS guidelines to help determine which is appropriate.3

  • The practice’s malpractice insurance will likely not cover IC’s; therefore, an IC must have a policy in his or her own name.

  • Many relief veterinarians and veterinary nurses choose to form an entity (eg, an LLC) for liability and tax purposes; however, this is not always necessary. Consider consulting with an attorney knowledgeable about state guidelines.

  • The practice may not have worker’s compensation covering IC’s injured in the practice. Health and disability insurance purchased by the IC will be necessary to cover these types of injuries.

  • A contract is needed to establish the relationship between the IC and the practice and is part of the IC type of relationship test.3 An attorney can draft a relief contract that details the specifics of the relationship with the practice. The contract should be signed before the IC begins work.

  • Relief workers have a higher potential for malpractice liability because of a decreased relationship with the client.4 Ensure that medical recordkeeping is flawless.

  • Relief employees should check the employment contract and employee handbook. Many contain exclusivity restrictions that prohibit employees from working at other practices and ask for an exemption in writing. Many employee handbooks do not apply to IC’s and thus would not have restrictions.

Conclusion

Employee versus independent contractor classification is a very common area of confusion and problems for veterinarians and practices. However, following the rules can allow for trouble-free and financially rewarding relief work.

Veterinary Technicians Can Do It, Too

Michelle D. Krasicki-Aune, MBA, BS, CVT, Vet Teams, Coon Rapids, Minnesota

Relief positions in the veterinary team are not just for DVMs anymore. The field for relief work has changed and there are now opportunities for veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants.

Following are some of the skills relief veterinary technicians and assistants will need, and their common experiences. See if a relief career may be in your future, or if using relief personnel may be right for your practice.

How to spell R-E-L-I-E-F

Ready, Set, Go

Relief personnel are typically self-starters and welcome the prospect to jump in and participate in challenging situations. They build on their already broad and well-rounded skill set (eg, alternative venipuncture, restraint methods, different communication styles). Additionally, relief personnel benefit from the unique opportunity to gain new skills every time they work with a different veterinary team.

Energy

Having a relief veterinary technician working in the practice is usually a new experience for veterinary teams, and his or her presence often brings newfound energy and excitement. For a relief team member, working with new clients and in new practices is exciting because of the promise of the unfamiliar and the excitement that new relationships are always full of surprises. This energy is contagious, and the team cannot escape it. Honestly, who would want to?

Learning

Discovering new and different ways of accomplishing a common goal (eg, obtaining blood samples on a fractious patient, keeping a patient normothermic during a long anesthetic episode, potty training a stubborn puppy) is exciting. Learning is never a one-way street, and relief veterinary technicians and team members benefit from the crossover of knowledge and skills each team member has while working together with patients. I am fond of saying, “There are 50 ways to Phoenix, and we get there each time,” when a team accomplishes a goal using newly gained knowledge or skills.

Independence

There are many different veterinary provider client types (eg, general practice and preventive care, including mobile; emergency and critical care; specialty practice; high volume spay and neuter). Relief veterinary technicians may form their own company or function as an employee of a larger relief organization. A variety of relief organizations means opportunities are available for personnel during all hours and days of the week, and at various physical locations across the country. So many choices give relief personnel the ability to be independent and create their own work schedules and choose the practice locations they like.

Experiences

Relief personnel have constant new experiences from interactions with new coworkers, clients, and patients. They also work with different brands of instruments and products found in different veterinary practices. All of these unique opportunities provide an infinite number of interactions that may never be repeated. The opportunities for meeting unique patients, from a flame point Siamese cat to a flamingo and from a skink to a Saint Bernard, as well as their unique owners, are endless.

Fun

This single word sums up what it is like to be the relief veterinary team member. Every day has the potential for new, exciting, and interesting experiences like celebrating staff birthdays and work anniversaries with individuals just met; bonding over the weirdest phone calls answered; or comparing the best pet names that come to the practice.

Conclusion

As with any career, relief work has its own set of unique challenges, including complex schedules, travel, and familiarity with multiple forms of practice management systems. However, the positives (eg, leaving the behind-the-scene's practice drama, making new professional friends, changing the lives of patients and their families) usually outweigh these negatives.