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 providing 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.*

P.S. on May 27th, 2011: 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.

P.P.S. on January 14, 2016: One more thing that occurred to me the other day: I have more than once shown up to an assignment to find that the Deaf and hearing parties had attempted to communicate without an interpreter the last time they met, and after more than an hour of writing notes back and forth, still could not understand each other. In each case, I was able to facilitate a crystal-clear conversation that resolved a hour of confusion in minutes. So the hours you pay us for are the ones we save you.

*I edited this article on January 14, 2015 at 6:05 PM to remove a final paragraph that was not fully relevant to the topic and distracted from the point of the post.

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.

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

  1. Plumbers don’t charge an X-hour minimum, Doctors don’t charge an X-hour minimum, but they both charge an appointment fee.

    Let’s stop calling it a 2 hour minimum and start calling it what it actually is: an appointment fee.

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    1. I can see “appointment fee,” “engagement fee,” or “base fee.” I agree that calling it a two-hour minimum is not ideal; in fact, a couple of places I’ve worked at thought they had to keep us the whole two hours because the agency had quoted the job that way. I still like the way it occurred to me lately: the hours are the ones we save you by facilitating clear communication in minutes.

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  2. 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.

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    1. 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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