A guide to being a locum veterinary nurse

Written by: Justin Powlesland
Published on: 12 Oct 2020

Veterinary nurses

From working in veterinary recruitment for the past 11 years, I have been asked almost every question under the sun in regard to life as a locum nurse. I hope this guide will help you in making your decision on whether taking the leap into locuming is right for you.

How much work is available?

The first question that generally gets asked is “how much work is available?”. This is a difficult question to answer as it really depends on your location, how far you will be willing to travel for work and whether would you be willing to stay in practice accommodation if it were available.

Obviously, the bigger the geographical area you are able to cover, the more vacancies that are likely to be available to you. If you live by the coast and would be willing to travel within a 20-mile radius of home then 50% of that area may well be the sea, meaning less clinics and vacancies compared to someone who lives with land all around him or her.

Some clinics do offer accommodation for the locum, and this could be anything from a flat above the clinic, to a house owned nearby, a spare room at one of the employee’s homes, or a hotel or B&B. Would you be comfortable staying away from home/family/pets? Some people I work with only like to stay away from home on a short-term basis, while others like the independence of living alone in practice accommodation and see it as a chance to escape for a while.

Although I understand the reason why the majority of us go to work is to make money, pricing yourself out will end up costing you jobs. What I mean by this is it is important to understand the going rates for a locum VN and the type of role you are putting yourself forward for. If the clinic receives two applications from similarly experienced VNs, but one is £3 per hour more than the other, the more expensive nurse may well miss out.

The average locum VN in the UK will earn £16 per hour. If you multiply this by 37 hours per week and then by 48 weeks of the year (taking four weeks off as annual leave, unpaid), this gives you a salary of £28,416.

How to find work

Some locums choose to find work themselves and they may do this via their own contacts. You will need to keep your contacts up to date with your availability and give them as much notice as possible. Jobs will be available on different job boards, so keep an eye on these, but the veterinary locum market is a very fast-moving industry, and things are changing all the time and jobs are being filled or becoming available all the time.

Once you have informed a clinic of your availability and it wants to book you, it is vitally important that you negotiate your hours, weekends and charges before starting, including any out-of-hours costs that may be in the rota, and send the clinic a “booking form” or contract so no disputes can occur when it comes to you invoicing the clinic for your wages or when you receive the rota. I would recommend having business cards printed off too for clinics to keep hold of.

Downsides do exist to finding work yourself and these could be that you may have to make many telephone calls or send many emails to keep yourself busy at all times. Also, if a clinic doesn’t pay your invoice on time, you will have to chase it for your money as I am sure you will have bills to pay yourself.

Some locums prefer to use an agency to find them work as this tends to be an easier option (as long as you have a good agent).

As an agent, I would be asking the locum upfront on the types of roles he or she is looking for – some people prefer hospital work or busier clinics, some prefer quieter clinics, and so on. I would need to know the geographical location, what hourly rate you were looking for and then we would do the searching for you. Agencies do tend to have a large selection of roles available and will do their best to keep you busy at all times.

Sometimes an incorrect thought can exist that if you work via an agency, you will get paid less or that the agency will take a percentage of your wages. This is completely untrue and, in fact, the agency will know the going rates for someone with your experience, and may even suggest that you are underselling yourself and get you an increase on your hourly rate.

Finding work via an agency will mean you will receive a booking form before starting an assignment and the client will also receive one, meaning everything is agreed upfront and in writing. You will have your agent available to you whenever you need for any questions you may have.

There is nothing wrong with registering with an agent and also having your own contacts to work with, and many locums will do both.

Difference agencies

Many people aren’t aware, but different types of agencies exist and it is important you know the type of agency you are dealing with.

JHP Recruitment, for instance, is what is known as an “employment agency” and this means we prefer to pay our locums rather than asking the clinic to pay them. This has huge benefits to the locum as it means you would need to complete a time sheet on a weekly basis and send this into us and we would then pay you (different options will be shown later in the article) on either a weekly or monthly basis – it is your choice. You should never have to chase your money.

“Introductory agencies” will introduce you to clinics and agree your rates for you, but it is then up to you to invoice the clinic and receive payment directly from it. It would become your responsibility to chase any outstanding payments.

How can I be paid?

At the time of writing this article (October 2020), a number of options are available to you, but with changes in IR35 legislation coming into effect from April 2021, these options will become less.

In years gone by, most “professional locums” (by this I mean someone seeking full-time locum work for at least 45 weeks of the year) wanted to set up their own “limited company” or worked as a “sole trader”. By doing this, the locum would become the director of the company and wages/invoices would be paid (gross) into a business bank account. From this account, wages would be paid into a personal account. Ways of reducing your tax bill via dividends exist, but you would need an accountant to process your books annually and advise you on the best way to run the company.

You would need to ensure you are keeping sufficient funds to one side for your annual tax bill. From April 2021, the changes in IR35 legislation will mean many clinics will not accept locums working in this way, so if you are just about to start locuming, I strongly suggest you speak with an agency before setting up a limited company as it may not be cost-effective for you.

Working as a locum veterinary nurse, you would need to ensure you have the correct insurances in place, such as public liability insurance or professional indemnity insurance. I would suggest speaking with the Veterinary Defence Society for further details on insurances.

Umbrella companies are by far the easiest option for a locum as tax would be paid at source for you.

A number of umbrella companies are available and it is completely your choice which one you use, but you would need to ensure they are compliant as some clinics or agencies will not work with umbrella companies if they do not pass certain criteria and are not 100% compliant. If you are unsure on this, again, speak with a good agency and it will be able to point you in the right direction.

When you work through an umbrella, your gross wages will be paid to it via the clinic or agency and then you will be paid your net wages, and the tax and national insurance passed to HMRC for you, meaning you don’t need to keep money aside for a tax bill. All the money that is paid into your account is yours to do what you wish with.

Although umbrella companies do charge a fee to use them, you do get other benefits such as professional indemnity insurance or public liability insurance, or possibly access to “perks” such as 2-for-1 meals in certain restaurants or 2-for-1 cinema tickets and so on. Each umbrella company will have its own way of working, so ensure you find out what is included before committing to it.

Discussing the pros and cons of different ways to be paid could take us into a full new article, so I have attached a table for you to compare umbrella companies to having your own limited company or being a sole trader. If you would like to discuss this further, I’m happy to discuss this over the phone (details below).

Locum Vet Nurse Table

What if I become sick or pregnant?

One of the major disadvantages of being a locum is that maybe you don’t receive all the benefits of an employed veterinary nurse. This tends to be offset by most locums as you will earn more money as a locum. You must weigh up whether it is a risk worth taking for yourself.

If you work via an umbrella company, which seems to be becoming the norm at the moment, then you will be classed as being employed by it and, therefore, you will be able to claim statutory sick pay or maternity pay, but certain rules will be in place, such as you must have been working for it for more than 26 weeks by the 15th week before the child is born (please check the exact rules with the umbrella company you decide to work with) to collect maternity pay.

Things to think about

As a locum, you will need to fund your own CPD, but options exist for free CPD with the likes of “elearningvet” or other online CPD providers.

Is it for me?

Locuming is a great way to gain more experience or see a little more of the UK, make new friends or open up more opportunities for you. I have locum veterinary nurses that I have worked with for 10 years and they absolutely love the freedom of being a locum, and deciding when and where to work.

I understand completely that making the leap into locuming could be a daunting one. I am happy to discuss this further or answer any questions you may have.

Good luck to all you locums out there.