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How will COVID-19 affect dental hygienists’ salaries?

When the outbreak first began, COVID-19 was known as the “novel” coronavirus, because everything about it was entirely new. Despite there being six other known coronaviruses, none were similar enough to help experts understand how the virus behaved or responded. This is still true today. It will take years of study and research to fully understand the impact of the devastating pandemic. 

Without research papers and books to investigate, this article is a humble attempt at understanding how the coronavirus outbreak will impact the financial future of dental hygienists. The piece calls upon existing research, well-informed predictions and industry data to make sense of the virus which is wreaking havoc throughout the world. 

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Pandemics usually cause worldwide recessions and this is exactly what’s happening in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. Because the virus is affecting all industries, it’s not surprising most people are seriously concerned about their financial future.

Dental hygienists are doubly affected by the developing recession. Patient fears over the coronavirus mean fewer people are making dental appointments, even for emergency treatments. This means the demand for the services of a dental hygienist have dropped. Additionally, the ADA recommended dental practice owners cancel all non-urgent dental treatment for a minimum of three weeks. When practice owners aren’t earning their usual income, they can’t afford to continue paying their regular staff.

While it’s important to stay realistic and understand what’s going on, it’s also essential to be proactive at a time like this. Here’s an overview of how we predict dental hygienists’ salaries will be affected by COVID-19 and how you can best turn the situation around to benefit from it.

During the coronavirus pandemic

At this time, dental practices have been advised to open exclusively for emergency treatment. Although this is a suggestion and not an obligation, many dental practices have taken the advice and cancelled all appointments for non-urgent treatment. Naturally, such significant drops in patient appointments and income are resulting in temporary dental staff layoffs and decreases in hours for the staff kept on.

One way dental practice owners can continue to keep their doors open during such an uncertain time is to work with temporary staff from Cloud Dentistry. Owners can save a huge amount of their staffing budget by only paying the workers for the specific hours they require their services. Additionally, when you work with independent contractors, you don’t need to worry about paying for benefits, such as sick or vacation pay.

As well as being more economic, hiring staff this way also reduces the amount of paperwork you need to file, giving you more time to focus on marketing your business and attracting the few patients in need of dental treatment. 

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If you’ve been dismissed because of the coronavirus outbreak, you can continue to support your family by working as an independent contractor dental hygienist. Cloud Dentistry sets you up with everything you need to create a profile to show off your qualifications, skills and experience. You decide your working schedule, your hourly rate and the positions you accept. You’re in complete control.

Coronavirus legislation package

On March 18th 2020, the Senate and House passed a coronavirus legislation package which will affect dental hygienists’ salaries. Under certain circumstances, dental practice owners will be required to pay their employees 2 weeks of sick leave. These instances include if the employee:

  1. Has been put into quarantine or isolation by federal, state or local authorities.
  2. Has been advised to self-quarantine by a healthcare provider.
  3. Is experiencing CODIV-19 symptoms and is awaiting medical diagnosis.
  4. Is caring for someone who qualifies as point 1 or 2.
  5. Is caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed.
  6. Is experiencing a very similar condition as described by the secretary of Health and Human Services in accordance with the secretaries of Labor and the Treasury.

This would seem like if an employed dental hygienist falls into one of the above six categories, they can expect to receive their usual salary for two weeks. However, this might not be the case.

Exemptions for small practice owners

The secretary of Labor has the authority to exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees from providing sick pay to anyone who falls into category 5 when it would negatively impact the business. Most dental practices have fewer than 50 employees and almost all of them would be badly hurt by having to provide staff with sick pay when they’re struggling to make ends meet. This would mean that if your child’s school was closed and you were forced to look after them, you’d have to take unpaid leave indefinitely.

If small dental practices are not made exempt, the ADA said practice owners with employees who are forced to care for their children because the school or care centre has been closed must provide up to 12 weeks of sick leave. The first 2 weeks will be unpaid, followed by 10 weeks of paid leave. This would make a huge difference to most dental hygienists and allow them time to look after their own family without worrying about financial problems.

COVID19 handout dental practices pdf file

After the coronavirus pandemic

Using the past to predict the future

At this current time, it’s exceptionally difficult to predict what will happen over the rest of the year in dentistry. But looking at similar events from the past, the future is potentially bright. Consider the 1918 Spanish flu, one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever experienced. During that time, not only was the human race battling with a horrific virus, but many countries were also suffering through World War I.

“The Impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic on Economic Performance in Sweden” by Karlssona MR, Nilsson T and Pichler S showed the pandemic led to an increase in poverty rates. However, neither the virus nor the aftermath of World War I had any apparent effect on earnings. If 2 horrendous international events were unable to have a detrimental effect on salaries 100 years ago, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to do so today.

Dental hygienist salaries over the years

Even taking into consideration inflation, the salary of a dental hygienist has continued to rise over the years:

  • Average RDH salary in 1960: $5500
  • Average RDH salary in 1970: $7000
  • Average RDH salary in 1980: $29000
  • Average RDH salary in 1990: $36000
  • Average RDH salary in 2000: $51000
  • Average RDH salary in 2010: $68000

There have been a huge number of transformative events which occurred throughout the decades, yet dental hygienists’ salaries carried on increasing. Although it’s unrealistic to expect a wage rise as soon as you return to work following the coronavirus pandemic, you can feel a little better knowing you’re in a valued career path with a bright future.

How consumers are anticipated to behave

It’s reasonable to assume consumer spending will begin to return a week after the government has removed travel and group gathering restrictions. For the first 2 weeks, it’s likely people will spend money exclusively on essentials because they’re still concerned about their financial futures. This means any patients who previously needed urgent dental treatment but refused to visit the dentist over COVID-19 transmission fears will now make an appointment.

Unfortunately, this is bad news for dental hygienists, as many dental office owners who are also practicing dentists will want to carry out these procedures on their own to reduce their expenditures. However, there is another scenario.

In contrast to the patients exclusively wanting emergency procedures, there will also be some patients who are eager to spend money on things that make them look good and feel better after being trapped inside under quarantine for so long. This type of consumer will be in need of dental cleanings, dental whitenings and other aesthetic treatments that dental hygienists perform. This is good news for RDHs as dental practices will need to hire you to carry out these treatments while the dentist focuses on more specialist work.

The diverging situations of the patient who only wants essential treatment and the patient who wants aesthetic treatment to feel better have been witness in the US following several life-changing events, including 9/11. Because of this, it’s safe to say the same can be expected to occur when the coronavirus outbreak is under control. 

How dental practice owners are anticipated to behave

Until they’ve got a steady stream of patient appointments, dental practice owners will be trying to keep their spending down to a minimum. This could mean a number of different things for dental hygienists:

  1. Being laid off and having to find work elsewhere.
  2. Having the same hourly rate, but having your hours cut.
  3. Having your hourly rate cut and having your hours cut.
  4. Having your hourly rate cut but keeping your usual hours.
  5. Having the same hourly rate with an increase in hours as a result of fewer staff.
  6. Having your hourly rate cut with an increase in hours as a result of fewer staff.

While point 5 might seem like the best option, it won’t do you any good in the long-term. Although you’ll still be able to make enough money to support your family, pushing yourself too hard for too long will drain you mentally, physically and emotionally. It’s simply not a sustainable option.

If you find yourself being laid off or not earning enough money, you can increase your income by becoming an independent contractor and finding clients through Cloud Dentistry. You’re in complete control of the hours you work. So there’s no problem fitting your work around a current placement or family commitments.

Remember, even if the dental practice you currently work for is doing badly, there are still people out there who need to be treated. You might have to look a little further than you’d like for a placement, but the odds of you finding one are good.

Fewer new practice openings

Because many people are struggling financially, it’s unlikely newly-qualified dentists will be opening their own practice for the first time in 2020. This is actually good news for dental hygienists concerned about their salary. Most practice owners open their first office with a very limited budget. This often means lowballing staff so they can afford expensive dental equipment to carry out specialist treatments.

During a financial crisis, you may have been tempted to accept a job offer from a newly-opened practice, even if you knew you were worth more. Before you knew it, several years would have passed, the world would have returned to normal and you’d still be underpaid. It’s a vicious cycle many people find themselves trapped in.

How will dental hygienists’ salaries be affected by COVID-19?

While it’s impossible to answer this question with any level of certainty, it’s unlikely dental hygienists’ salaries will be positively or negatively impacted by COVID-19. While the pandemic is still running wild, it’s more likely staff will experience a reduction in their working hours to begin with. Their hourly rate is expected to remain the same.

When the restrictions have been lifted and business begins to pick up again, it’s possible practice owners will request dental hygienists to work for less than their usual salary for a limited time until the business once again becomes prosperous.

If your employer approaches you with this notion, suggest that you work at a reduced hourly rate with a guaranteed bonus made up with the rest of your salary by the end of the year. This way you’re still being paid what you’re worth and the practice owner is able to get their business back up and running without high expenditures. It’s important to be understanding and empathetic, but agreeing to work for less than you’re worth is a slippery slope you don’t want to find yourself on.

Find other ways to make money as a dental hygienist

Unlike the coronavirus, one thing’s for sure — dentistry isn’t going anywhere. The skills of a dental hygienist will always be in demand. Instead of changing your career, consider changing your approach to how you work, how you can better serve your patients and how you can benefit in the new and unpredictable world we’re currently in.

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If you find yourself with more time than you know what to do with, take advantage and increase your professional value. Read everything you can on the latest developments in dentistry, take online courses on aspects you’re unfamiliar with and work on your weaknesses so they’re no longer shortcomings. Taking this time to become a better dental hygienist will help you increase your value and therefore salary when everything gets back to normal.

Now is also a great time to catch up with the modern way of finding work. If you’ve only ever worked for an employer in a single dental practice, consider becoming an independent contractor and increasing your market value. There are many exciting opportunities out there if you know where to look.

We’d like to stress that the points covered in this article are conjecture-based. Whatever happens, we hope the future is filled with hope and promise for all of you.