How Long is a Labor Hour?

    Did you ever stop and wonder how long a labor hour actually is? I’m not talking 
about time ticking away on a clock. I’m talking about the actual time spent on a 
repair vs. the labor guide’s suggested time. Personally, I’ve never had a job that 
started and finished exactly to the second of the given labor time. It’s not like 
the labor guide’s hourly chart is set in stone, or that they’re wrong, but when it 
comes to getting paid it sure seems like they are.

    Any mechanic will tell you that a labor hour can stretch to half a day if a lot of 
research is involved, or it can last 15 minutes. Most labor guides typically don’t take 
into account how much research, diagnosis, equipment setup, or the time it takes 
recover your 10mm socket that just fell down into the motor.

    Time, as they say, is money. If you don’t think so, take your car to any 
bodyshop and read off the labor charges. You’ll find the labor time is 
divided into a 1/10th of an hour. However, in the mechanical repair shop, seldom are the labor costs scrutinized as they are when dealing with insurance companies. Even still, I’ve never once been asked to break down the mechanical repair labor into diagnostic time and the actual physical labor when giving an estimate.

    Even though the book time has been calculated out, it’s still not a complete guide and certainly not the Holy Grail of the repair industries time clock. Of course, an estimate is only an estimate. But, somewhere along the line of communication somebody needs to tell somebody that the estimate quoted straight from book of a one-hour, does not included diagnostic time and you can bet not every shop will add the diagnostic cost onto the estimate for fear of missing out on the job.

    Even with all the technically advanced diagnostic tools a professional mechanic has at their disposal there are still people who can’t understand why diagnostic time should be included in the labor estimate, even though it’s not part of the R&R for the component. In their mind, (as I’ve been told numerous times), the mechanic should already know what’s wrong when they pull their car into the shop.

    What’s worse is the price shopper who calls from shop to shop looking for the cheapest repair. I’d bet to say the cheapest quote is probably nothing more than the R&R labor time for whatever part they’re concerned about. However, nobody mentioned anything about the crusted connections at the battery, or the leaking valve cover that’s coated the starter in oil, or whether you’ve installed aftermarket headers. Not to mention any diagnostic time, because the real problem isn’t the starter at all. 

    On the other hand there are the stop watch aficionados. You know, the people who literally count the seconds of every minute and are bound to argue over any labor time discrepancies on their invoice. The mechanic’s entire career, (in their way of thinking), is strictly turning bolts and slapping on parts. These tick-tock-time-keepers, watch their timepieces with precision and inevitably use “time” as the only determining factor for the cost of a repair.  

    For instance, let’s say the book time said an hour, and everyone involved agreed upon the charges, but the mechanic got it done in 25 minutes. The argument has always been that the cost of the job should be no more than the time it took to do it. Should the mechanic be penalized for doing his job proficiently and having completed it early? Where does it say he should give the job to the customer at some discounted rate because he can beat the book time? Doesn’t seem right at all. But, what if the same job that was quoted for an hour has taken four hours to complete? Who pays for the time difference now? 

    So in a sense, a labor hour isn’t an hour at all. It’s an arbitrary amount of time that may or may not be exactly 60 minutes. If it was as accurate as some people believe, then theoretically you should get an estimate for that hour’s labor, pull up to the repair shop, and walk out in exactly 60 minutes with the job completed. Not a second sooner or a second later. Yea, good luck with that one.

    Like most trades mechanics get paid by the hour, however it’s not like you punch a time clock in the morning, work all day, then collect a 40-hour paycheck at the end of the week. Most mechanics work on flag time. Realistically, let’s call it what it really is… piece work, (the piece being the car). Very few mechanics are offered an hourly pay and a guaranteed 40-hour work week, (although there are some places that use a combination of both flag time and hourly pay). 

    More times than not, a mechanic ends up eating a whole lot of labor time for problem solving. Whether there are rusted bolts, bad connections, illusive intermittent problems or poor information from the get-go, something is going to use up time which eventually won’t go towards a paycheck. 

    Any time money and people are involved in the same situation, and you’re dealing with something that’s not widely understood, such as the modern car, it’s up to the mechanics and the repair shops to make sure they do. Customers also need to understand that this is a business based on suggested labor hours and not a time clock. There needs to be a reasonable amount of trust in the labor guide estimates from both sides of the counter. Because, it’s hard to say how long an hour of labor really is. 

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