Business, Interpreting

Why Interpreters Charge a “Two-Hour Minimum”

Donna wrote:

Hello Mr. Green
We have a patient coming in who has requested an asl interpreter (this would be a first for us). Some of the agencies i checked into seem pretty steep and are asking for a minimum commitment of 2 hours. Our eye exams ususally last no longer than 30 minutes. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

Hi, Donna. Actually, the two-hour minimum is pretty standard. Without it, interpreters would have a very hard time making a living. You have to consider drive time and prep time. An interpreter usually arrives 5–15 minutes before an assignment— longer if they don’t know the location or the personnel, and it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour-and-a-half to get from one job to another (these are just ballpark figures). On a typical day, an interpreter might be able to get to four assignments at the most. If each of those assignments is a two-hour billable, that makes up an eight-hour billable day. However, if each of those jobs actually took two hours, the interpreter might only be able to do three of them. So that’s the issue with the minimum fee. (Besides, if an interpreter only got paid for 30 minutes at those four jobs they spent their whole working day journeying to, they would only earn two hours’ pay for a day’s work.)

As far as the cost goes, I know it is expensive. Consider, though, that an agency probably has to spend at least an hour or two in paperwork alone— filling out the paperwork your company may require of vendors, sending and receiving signed contracts, sending out messages to all their interpreters to see who’s available, fielding phone calls and emails from interpreters who are available, taking into consideration the wants or needs of the deaf client, who might say “I love working with these interpreters, I will work with these interpreters, and I won’t work with these interpreters.” Then there’s the time the agency spends getting all the job-related information from you, including things you might not have thought of such as language preference of the deaf client, any dual disabilities (such as Ushers Syndrome, for instance), the name of the medical center, driveway entrance, building number, parking, floor number, room number, contact person, doctor’s name, etc.

Also, consider the time it takes the interpreter to receive requests from agencies asking if they’re available for jobs, checking their calendars, responding to the agency, getting job-related info from the agency (which often includes questions the agency hadn’t thought of, which then entails more correspondence between agency and you and back to the interpreter)… time spent figuring out where the job is and how to get there, time spent after the job possibly case-conferencing with a colleague on how to handle various linguistic or ethical issues that might have arisen, time spent with the agency proving pass-along information such as “you’ll want to take the south entrance because there is more parking there than the north entrance” or “you have to check in at window three” or “the deaf client does not know much sign language.” Then there’s the time spent billing the agency, receiving payments, depositing, accounting, tax preparation, etc.

When it comes right down to it, we’re worth it.

All that said, I do have a cost-saving option for you: VRI – video remote interpreting. Not cheap, but you can pay by the minute instead of paying a minimum fee. A remote video interpreter is not the best replacement for a local interpreter, but it is an option that may or may not work for you and your deaf consumers.

Oh, and consider the interpreter’s costs to retain individual health insurance and professional liability insurance, advertising costs, telecommunications costs, home office costs, continuous education costs, licensing and certification maintenance dues and fees, legal fees, accountant fees, the cost of massages (usually not covered by interpreters’ already expensive private health insurance), etc. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but it’s expensive to be an interpreter, and if we couldn’t make a living at it, we would leave the profession. I hope this helps explain our value.


2 thoughts on “Why Interpreters Charge a “Two-Hour Minimum”

  1. ls says:

    Q please – if they use Video Relay, will it put professionals like yourself out of business? Pay per minute, eh?

    So many folks never get it – life costs! Independent professionals in many services face same query. Those who say it’s expensive, they do not consider the client ‘worth it’ either sometimes. Very sad.


    • I agree with you that it is very sad when people do not feel their clients are “worth” accommodating. As for video interpreting, though, I don’t think it will put interpreters out of business, because we can simply move into video interpreting as the demand calls us to. I currently make my living doing a combination of video relay service (VRS), video remote interpreting (VRI), and onsite or “community” interpreting.

      One amendment I would make to my response to the original query is that it would not be cost-effective for them to set up a video remote interpreting device for a one-time or occasional deaf consumer. It would only be cost-effective if they had a fairly steady stream of deaf patients, as is the case in some hospitals I do VRI for. For people who need to hire interpreters once or only occasionally, it really is better to bring an interpreter onsite. And, hey, they can write it off their taxes!


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