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I have a client with whom my hours are capped at 20 hours a week. This client is not timely at all, neither with giving me access I need nor with responding to emails. Last week, this left me only able to bill 13.5 hours because I was waiting so long for access (and I still don't have all the access I need). I've also been waiting 1.5 days for a crucial email response that is preventing me from starting new tasks.

This so far is severely impacting my hours forecasting moving forward.

Is it ethical to bill for hours waiting?

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    Some people just want to down/close vote everything, don't pay too much attention to it. Also it is generally a good idea to wait at least few hours (usually 24) before accepting an answer to invite broader array of answers. Sep 1 '20 at 15:02
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    What does your contract with the client say regarding billable hours?
    – sf02
    Sep 1 '20 at 15:34
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    @sf02 Nothing specific regarding wait times. Again, haven't encountered such delays with previous clients. Therefore, didn't include a min hours clause (which I will do moving forward). New projects always present something new to learn.
    – J.S. Orris
    Sep 1 '20 at 16:28
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    Bear in mind that the ethical dimension may separate from the practical one here. As you have accepted a simple "yes it is ethical" answer, you may want to consider whether your relationship with the client would be affected when you present them with a bill for days of waiting. Some clients won't even notice, some clients will understand and be fine with it, some clients will not like it, and may contest the bill, or even terminate the contract. These issues can be independent on your own feelings of whether billing for time spent waiting in any specific case is ethical. Sep 2 '20 at 8:06
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    US labor law distinguishes between waiting to be engaged and being engaged to wait. A labor attorney might be helpful in understanding the distinction, and which case applies here. webapps.dol.gov/elaws/whd/flsa/hoursworked/screenER78.asp
    – user120611
    Sep 2 '20 at 14:13
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Is it ethical to bill for hours waiting?

Broadly speaking - no.

You can and should bill for the time spent verifying that the access is broken, the communication around trying to get the access, but if you are not doing work for the client, you can't bill for it. There are some exceptions around it, for example if you are physically waiting for someone to come down and open the doors for you (when on client premises) - that would generally count as billable time as you are physically restricted from taking on different tasks and already on client's time.

But as this is a remote arrangement you are not facing such issues, and you can easily switch context to another activity after verifying that access is not there.

On a side note, and a lesson, beside agreeing to a hourly cap, make sure to also get minimums into your contract. This way they are motivated to get you up and running, as whether they do, or not, you are going to be paid for the minimums.

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    @Squ1rr3lz May want to go back to the FED contracts then, sounds like a gravy train to me! Sep 1 '20 at 14:47
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    @Squ1rr3lz Minimums, getting downpaymens up front and always having more than 1 client are about the most important 101 contracting lessons. Sep 1 '20 at 14:53
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    @Squ1rr3lz Now you know better! :D Sep 1 '20 at 14:56
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    As @TymoteuszPaul said, you cannot bill for time you had a chance of doing something else. Waiting on remote access to be provided is not billable time unless it is ah-hoc and it should be provided in a short while. For example: getting a phone call from a IT department and waiting on the line with the tech for the access is billable, getting an email saying that access should be available on a particular day and time, only the valdiation is billable in case access isn't there
    – Strader
    Sep 1 '20 at 17:39
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    I agree with this overall, but want to highlight that "time spent verifying the access is broken" may be more substantial than initially apparent. Are you emailing the client to inquire about delays? Adjusting project estimates to account for inability to log in? You should not bill all day Tuesday because no one replied to your Monday email, but any time devoted to this client should be treated as billable, unless you have an agreement otherwise. Don't feel like you have to do free work just to follow-up! :)
    – Alex
    Sep 2 '20 at 3:46
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In a nutshell... if your waiting prohibits you from performing billable work for other clients or prohibits you from pursuing other activities, whatever they may be, then you should bill for it. Otherwise, no.

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    This is the best answer. If you are losing out on business opportunities because a client is stringing you along, then, most certainly, that client needs to be billed.
    – Haris
    Sep 2 '20 at 12:44
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    Also consider max 20h/week cap: You are kind of expected to have at least another job of a similar magnitude at hand (otherwise you're underemployed). How you structure that is your business (and/or you have to work out with all clients). I'd chalk this up to "remember to put this issue into next contract". Because you can get a "min 10h, max 20h per week" clause in for example. Sep 2 '20 at 13:58
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    I would agree with this interpretation. I further suggest that any new contracts with the client contain a clause stating this interpretation, for the avoidance of doubt that excessively slow responses to information/access requests may incur costs. Also note that even if you have other pending work you can progress with the time right now (so the situation isn't really imposing an immediate opportunity cost), the hours you may need to work for this client in the future may stop you being able to allocated time to other projects in a future billing period. Sep 2 '20 at 14:08
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    @Haris It depends on how direct it is. If it's simply an issue of not taking on other clients out of concern that, if this client were to start requiring 20 hours/week, the OP wouldn't have time for the new client, that doesn't justify billing hours (although it would be a reason to word the contract to allow billing hours in such a circumstance). Sep 2 '20 at 22:12
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It certainly is ethical. When you are billing for work, you are not billing for work performed, you are billing for hours spent. When you are working and waiting for access, those are hours you're not doing something else, like spending time with your family, pursuing hobbies, eating, traveling, etc., things which you want to do. Since you are prevented from doing things you want to do with your time, your time is still being used even if you are not being productive with it. Therefore it is totally ethical to ask the client to pay for that time.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Sep 2 '20 at 13:15
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If the client didn't agree to it, then it's not ethical to charge them for it. What this comes down to is the client is effectively presenting you with only 13.5 hours of demand. This decrease is due to them making less work possible rather than explicitly telling you that there's less work that they want you to do, but it ends up with the same effect. So ultimately, your complaint comes down to a client not assigning you as much work as you want, and you wanting to bill them for how much you wanted to work for them, rather than how much work they presented you with. You say this affects your ability to forecast revenue, and that raises the question of just who should bear this burden.

Variations in demand is a common phenomenon. Just who absorbs that variation depends on the relationship. In an employer-employee relationship, the employer absorbs the variation; if there are times of days where a supermarket has half the customers, they don't pay their employees half the hourly rate. With a customer-vendor relationship, the vendor absorbs the variation; if a hotel has a period of low vacancy, it doesn't send its previous customers a bill for the unused rooms.

Relationships between clients and contractors exist on a spectrum between these two extremes, and you need to figure out where you want to be on that spectrum, communicate that to your clients, and get them to agree. There are trade-offs to this decision. Part of the reason that the nominal rates of contractors tend to be greater than those of employees is that the costs of this variation is priced into their rates. In your own words, this client is paying a "fairly lucrative rate". Asking your clients to pay lucrative rates and expecting them to pick up the tab when demand goes down is double dipping. If you want a more regular income stream, you need to work out how to put conditions in your contracts to achieve that, and be prepared for the amount you can charge to decrease.

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  • "if there are times of days where a supermarket has half the customers, they don't pay their employees half the hourly rate." Legally they can't do that, but they can, and do, cut hours, which is basically the same thing happening here.
    – barbecue
    Sep 3 '20 at 0:11
  • @barbecue: This is highly variable, depending on local labor laws. In most developed countries (e.g. countries with "real" labor laws), worker protection rules implies that an employer cannot reduce pay without the worker's agreement (and, most of the time, the union's agreement). Neither by reducing rates nor by reducing hours paid (excluding small variations made possible by law or negotiated with unions).
    – tricasse
    Sep 3 '20 at 13:36
  • @Accumulation To clarify. The demand is there and have a backlog of task items to complete. The client team keeps having meetings to discuss my access. Basically they are trying to limit license costs and keep discussing workarounds around this. In short, there are no workarounds and it is severely impacting me.
    – J.S. Orris
    Sep 3 '20 at 15:35
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    @Squ1rr3lz If the tasks are in the backlog but the client hasn't given you the means to complete them, then the demand is not there. If my car needs repairs but I don't have time to get it repaired until tomorrow, then there is no demand for my car to be repaired today. Sep 3 '20 at 17:42
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    @DanHenderson: That's also what I understood from @ barbecue ("cut hours"). Supermarket employees are rarely unionized in the US. It's different in other developed countries, that have a lot of limitations on schedule variability (and where unions work very differently from the US).
    – tricasse
    Sep 3 '20 at 22:20

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