tl;dr — being billed a minimum number of service hours is standard practice in the sign language interpreting profession. It's not a scam—it's the real thing.
But I only needed the interpreter for five minutes!
So you just found out that you are getting billed for two full hours when the interpreter was only needed for five whole minutes—ouch! Hopefully you are learning about this before the request is placed and not after you get the bill! Either way, this realization stings a bit initially and you are certainly not the first person to wonder why it has to be this way. We feel your pain. Interpreters are expensive already and a two-hour minimum doesn't help. We'll cover some of the reasons a minimum exists in the hopes that it may help take down the swelling a little.
Note: while this article references a two-hour minimum, know that in some locales and under special circumstances that minimum may be shorter or longer. Some may even refer to it as a "appearance fee" or "minimum service charge". But ultimately it is the same thing any way you slice it: additional charges for short requests to cover the cost of doing business. Since a two-hour minimum is, by far, the most common practice, that's what we will refer to here.
First things first
Everyone is doing it. It is a standard practice in the United States that sign language interpreters bill for a two-hour minimum for their services. Now, this may be the least appealing answer but it's true. Doesn't matter if you are hiring an interpreter with Linguabee, through another agency, or contracting with one independently yourself. The fact remains: there will be some sort of minimum cost to get that interpreter's foot in the door.
Other agencies or interpreters may try and spin it in your favor and argue that it is going to reduce unforeseen costs (if the interpreter has to stay beyond their allotted time) or somehow ensures a better experience for everyone. But the fact is that the only way a two-hour minimum truly works in your favor is that it gets an interpreter to show up when you need one.
If you want to go on a search to find an interpreter who is willing to accept a fifteen-minute request without a two-hour minimum—well, best of luck you to you! If you were to find someone, you will likely find they have adjusted the hourly rates to compensate accordingly.
If you are hiring interpreters for larger periods of time, this isn't going to affect you. But if you only need an interpreter now and then for fifteen minutes it surely will.
Why this is even a thing to begin with
Interpreters generally work a number of different requests through the day for different people at different locations. Perhaps they are booked to interpret a follow-up doctor's appointment at 9:00 AM, then a 30-minute business meeting at 11:30 AM, then a 30-minute parent-teacher conference at 2:00 PM. The interpreter has to travel to all these requests individually and factor in enough time to get there and leave in time to park their car, walk to where they need to be, find the people they need to find, use the bathroom, get a drink of water, and then be ready to work. Factor in all these variables, and an interpreter naturally has to add some padding to their schedule in order to get to your specific request on time and avoid arriving late.
With the two-hour minimum, these three short assignments (each thirty minutes or less) result in the interpreter billing for a total of 6 hours of work. Assuming the first and last request are 30 minutes from their home, then the interpreter was out of the house and on the road for 6.5 hours (hopefully with enough time for lunch).
In an alternate reality (one that does not yet exist), an interpreter could set up shop in an office building and everyone could go to them. In that case, a two-hour minimum wouldn't be necessary. The interpreter could schedule time slots just like a lawyer or therapist or doctor. But you can see why this is an alternate reality: it's hard to imagine a lawyer with their client or a doctor with their patient piling into the car together to drive down to the nearest "Interpreter Office Building" to wait in a waiting room to receive services!
Furthermore, interpreters provide a service that exists only when other people are actively talking to each other! A lawyer is (hopefully) sitting on a pipeline of work they can do whenever they have some downtime. When they are not working on one case, they can turn to another; their days should be full of billable minutes (and they certainly bill for the time it takes them to get anywhere, should they need to). Doctors often overbook their schedules and have other requirements that can fill their time. The interpreting profession does not work that way: interpreters can't turn to a backlog of interpretations to fill in the gaps in their schedule when they are waiting between requests. They have to try and put together a schedule based on the requests and the locations that happen to fall on that day and factor in all the logistics of travel that happen between one location to another.
With all this in mind—turning back to our hypothetical interpreter and their schedule—let's imagine there was no two-hour minimum. This would mean that our interpreter only earned 15 minutes of billable time for the doctor's appointment at 9:00 AM, 30 minutes for the business meeting at 11:30 AM, and 30 minutes for the parent-teacher conference at 2:00 PM. When the day is over, they still would have been out and about doing their job from 8:30a to 3:00p, and have only earned 1.25 billable hours (instead of 6 with a two-hour minimum).
This might be sustainable if it only happened every once in a while, but for interpreters this type of scheduling is very routine. And because of this, the two-hour minimum exists. From a business perspective, the only way to do away with a two-hour minimum would be if they charged variable rates based on the length of the request. And if you are negotiating specific contacts with agencies, you may see this practice. But honestly: that's the same horse in a different dress.
How to make it work in your favor
You can't make the two-hour minimum go away, but you can make some scheduling decisions that may minimize the impact.
Here is an example: let's say you need an interpreter for a thirty-minute weekly staff meeting that happens from 9:00AM to 9:30AM every Monday. If you put in the recurring request (which is easy with Linguabee) for exactly that timeframe—thirty minutes—then that's how long the interpreter will schedule themselves to be there. And you will get charged for two hours.
One thing you could do, instead, is to put in the request from 9:00AM to 10:00AM, and include a note with the request that the first thirty minutes will be a staff meeting and, after a break, there is time scheduled for any short 1:1 discussion among staff members. This won't cost you anything extra, and you will be providing the folks in your office more opportunities to connect through the interpretation services being provided and maximizing your return on the service.
Now there are a couple caveats with this approach that you want to keep in mind.
For starters, there is another standard practice that can bite you: needing two interpreters for lengthier requests (don't worry, we've got information on that as well). Be sure to indicate your intent for the group meeting and then the 1:1 time so the interpreter accepting the request knows what to expect. And if you are trying to stretch a 15-minute meeting into a full two-hour time block, know that interpreters will want to know why a second interpreter is not being hired.
Another thing to keep in mind is that by increasing the length of the request you may, in effect, decrease the pool of available interpreters. Imagine there is an interpreter out there who already has a full schedule starting on mid-morning that day. This interpreter may be able to accept the request if it was scheduled to end at 9:30AM, but as soon as you move it 10:00AM they can't make it to their next assignment. (Our custom scheduling algorithms take into account interpreter's previous commitments.)
If you are new to hiring and working with interpreters, hopefully this put your mind at ease about whoever it was that first broke the news to you that a two-hour minimum would be applied. They weren't making this up. It's a real thing. It's not just them.
And if you've been doing this for a while—like us—maybe this added a bit to your knowledge and understanding of why it exists and how to be savvy about it.
Either way, you still aren't going to be able to get around a two-hour minimum.