Interpreting for government contractors: A real nightmare?

September 24, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

I know that working with government contractors is a delicate topic for many of you. I understand that in some cases you are as invested in a project as the contractor, and I also know that these entities and individuals serve a purpose in our system.  I have personally worked for many government contractors in my professional career.  I have to say that my experiences have been good most of the time, but because I have been shortchanged by a contractor in the past, and because I have heard horror stories from many of my colleagues, I decided to write this blog.

My worst experience with a federal government contractor wasn’t as an interpreter. It was as a translator. Years ago I was hired to do a very large translation that required of many months of hard work. Because of the size, it was agreed that I would receive a big down payment, and that I would deliver the translation in parts. Every time I delivered part of the translation I would get paid for the part that was delivered. I translated one third of the job and I got paid; I translated a second third of the job and I was paid; but when I delivered the rest of the translation I received no money. I repeatedly sent invoices and notices to the same people I had been dealing with for over a year. They first told me that there had been a glitch in the system and I would get the check very soon. Months later they put me through to several people I had never dealt with, and I was told that this payment would take some time because the government had not paid them yet.  Finally, after several attempts to talk to somebody and never getting a real human being on the phone, I decided to contact the company’s general manager and I was told that they were not going to pay me, period. They argued that the government had paid them less than expected and that I had already received an important sum of money.  I had no choice but to send the invoice to a collections agency and after about a year I got most of the money they owed me. They paid on installments.  As an interpreter there was a time when I was offered a job by a contractor.  Although I had not worked for this company, I knew colleagues who had and they had shared their horror stories.  The proposal was interesting so I decided to talk to this contractor.

It went wrong from the beginning when this person started by telling me: “…of course you are not one of those interpreters that want to charge (he mentioned the amount) dollars per day right?  We are offering you a great opportunity, so part of it is that you have to play ball with us and accept (he quoted me a pretty insignificant amount) dollars per day…”  I paused for a second and said: “You are right. I am not one of those interpreters who charge (I repeated the amount he had used before) dollars per day. I charge (I quoted a quite larger amount) dollars per day regardless of the great opportunity this may be…”  Obviously he did not like my answer and after a few irrelevant exchanges we parted ways. He said that he would get back to me with an answer but I knew he wasn’t going to call again.

A few months went by and I eventually ran into a colleague who works with government contractors all the time. During our conversation about his work, he brought up the name of the individual I met with months before, and said that this contractor I had turned down months before, was in some kind of crisis because he had hired some interpreters for a big job and apparently the client was not happy with the service provided. My friend mentioned that contractors had been under a lot of pressure because the government was looking for lower bids every time, and they had started to cut costs by hiring less experienced and less expensive interpreters.  That was the end of the conversation and that was it.

A few weeks later I got a phone call from the same contractor “apologizing” because it had taken him this long to get back on the proposal but that he was ready and we should meet.  He never mentioned the fact that he had tried other interpreters first and it backfired.  At this point I really didn’t want to work with him because the interpreter fee comment from the first meeting had really bothered me, but we met anyway.  He was ready to pay the amount I requested at the first meeting, but this time I asked for more. He seemed surprised and told me he had to think about it. We said goodbye and I never heard from him again. I later learned that his company had not paid in full to any of the colleagues who ended up doing the job.  I was really glad I decided not to take the job.

Some interpreters have not been this lucky.  Although I didn’t see this first hand, I heard of some colleagues brought to the country on non-immigrant visas sponsored by the contractor, who are not paid regularly, are forced to work overtime for free, and are constantly threatened with the revocation of their visa.  Other colleague told me that after being hired by a government contractor for a 2-week job away from his hometown, he was cancelled on the day the job started and the contractor refused to pay him arguing that he had “done nothing…to deserve payment…” totally disregarding the fact that this colleague had made travel arrangements, had turned down other assignments during those 2 weeks, and was not going to make any money for at least a good part of the 2-week period. I know staff interpreters who quit full-time and part-time jobs with government contractors, and I know others, like me, who had to go to collections agencies, and even to court, in order to get paid for work already done.  I am not saying that all government contractors are bad people. Some of them are really good. All I am saying is that before signing a professional services agreement with a government contractor, you should check the company out and review the contract very carefully.  Contractors are essential in our type of work and we must work together developing strong professional relationships, but we should never forget that despite the glamour and prestige of the job offered, we should always do our homework before signing on the dotted line.  Please share your contractor experiences, good or bad, with the rest of us.

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§ 6 Responses to Interpreting for government contractors: A real nightmare?

  • Zetta Ermakova says:

    Dear colleague,

    Thanks a lot for your interesting post. I am quite sure it happens in many spheres, including translations. I have some personal approach to people who owe me money and never return them. I say: amount you owe is your total price as a person with a great discount for honesty!

  • […] Dear Colleagues, I know that working with government contractors is a delicate topic for many of you. I understand that in some cases you are as invested in a project as the contractor, and I also …  […]

    • Exercising your rights as a subcontractor can be difficult because it is hard to establish any legal relationship with the contracting officer. However, when you don’t get paid, rules allow you to initiate contact with the government and making them aware that the prime is not paying you. This is true for interpreters or any other contract,

  • Lucas Amuri says:

    Great article and advice. I have had the experience of not being fully paid by a government contractor only once and since then I have shied away from government contractors.The trick is to have a cast iron legal contract which would stand in court or can be used by a collection agency. Life is full of uncertainty and preparing ahead of time is the best strategy.

  • Carla Koch says:

    In Canada, dealing with government contractors for interpreting services can lead to very late payments. The trend seems to be a wait of around 6 weeks for payment because of all the hoops one has to jump through. It not better in the private sector either for the moment. Indeed, we seem to be waiting up to 3 months for payment for some private sector contracts.
    A difficult economy/situation to be sure. One has to have good line of credit to fall back on.

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