A lesson to all interpreters.

October 12, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic.  I am referring to the freelance United States immigration court interpreters who, so far, have refused to accept the contractual conditions offered by a new federal government contractor that does not deal with them as language professionals but as unqualified laborers.

For many years, federal government contractors did their bidding and earned contracts from the immigration courts (EOIR) based on a widely accepted assumption that immigration court interpreters would take any fee offered to them, regardless of how low it was. This is how the bidding process worked and produced the abhorrent working conditions that LionBridge imposed on the interpreters, including extremely low fees, absurd cancellation policies, unprofessional treatment where the interpreters’ word had no credibility when their word conflicted with court staff, and even a penalty for those who wanted to be paid on time.  For these reason many interpreters left, or never entered, the immigration court interpreting field. It was just unattractive to those who wanted to make a higher income and expected to be treated like professionals.  Even now, the testimony of several attorneys reflects this reality when they comment that, many times, the quality of the interpretation in immigration court was lower than at those courts managed by the Administrative Offices of the Courts.

This is the environment that SOSi, the new bidder, encountered when they came into the picture. No wonder they pushed interpreter working conditions to a low never seen before.  They assumed that this time would be like the others and interpreters would take the offer, no matter how unfair and insulting.  They were wrong.

You see, friends and colleagues, a few things have changed since the last time the contract was awarded to LionBridge. By the time SOSi bids for the EOIR contract, there were more interpreters with a formal education than before; these colleagues had entered to the world of immigration court interpreting for many reasons: to gain some professional experience, to put their name out there, to have some income to begin to repay their student loans…

They worked as immigration court interpreters, but they were not there to stay; their time working over there would be a step towards a more fulfilling and better paid career. They did not plan to stay, but while they were there, they shared their ideas about professionalism and their personal dreams with the other interpreters who were already there. They inspired many of them to study to better themselves as interpreters, to go to a community college and study interpretation, to take a state or federal court interpreter certification exam, to become certified as healthcare interpreters, and so on.  The crowd that SOSi encountered did not look much like the one its predecessor found some twenty years earlier. The result: They would not put up with worse working conditions than the horrendous ones they had suffered from the previous contractor, so they refused to sign the contracts, and the deadline for SOSi to take over interpreting services came and went without fulfilling their obligation because of their lack of the most precious and indispensable asset to provide interpreting services: the professional immigration court interpreter.

These colleagues took advantage of things that were not there the last time the contract was up for bids: social media, communication and peer support, information about the working conditions of other court interpreters working somewhere else, and the experience of our colleagues in the United Kingdom with another agency devoted to the degradation of the professional interpreter: Capita.

The refusal to sign these individual contracts happened all over the United States, the voice got louder, blogs spread the word and informed some not-so-well known facts about the contractor (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/disrespecting-the-immigration-interpreter/) virtual forums were created, professional associations intervened, the media wrote about this issue in English (http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidnoriega/immigration-courts-could-lose-a-third-of-their-interpreters#.sopPZ5w26) in Spanish (http://www.eldiariony.com/2015/10/07/disputa-laboral-de-interpretes-amenaza-con-agravar-demoras-en-tribunales-de-inmigracion/) and discussed it on the radio (http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2015/10/09/44770/backlog-at-immigration-courts-could-grow-with-a-pa/)

The contractor, probably frustrated by this “unexpected occurrence”, apparently decided to get help from local language services agencies all over the country to see if, by buffering this link between them and the professional immigration court interpreter, some colleagues would agree to sign the individual contracts, and, unless there is some legal figure no interpreter is aware of, as a result of their signature, they would become contractors of a sub-contractor (the local agency), putting them one more step away from the entity that won the contract: SOSi. In fact, I have heard from several interpreters in different cities who have contacted me with their concerns about the contents of this contract that has been offered to them.

Although the following is in no way legal advice, nor is intended in the slightest to be such a thing, I have decided to give my opinion about some of the portions of the contract as they were presented to me by my colleagues. Remember, this is just my opinion, based on my many years of professional experience as a professional interpreter, and my years in law school.  Your opinion may be different and I will not dispute such a thing.  Let’s see:

The most common concern about our colleagues can be summarized by this colleague’s observations: In general, I have my doubts that my previously negotiated  half/day and  full/day rates would really be respected, in light of SOSi’s option to pay these “…unless EOIR determines that using a different CLIN would result in less cost to the government.”  What does this mean in plain English?

There is a legal principle in civil law (and contracts are civil law) called the parol evidence rule. This principle states that all negotiations between the parties to a contract that took place before or simultaneously to the signing of a contract, that are not clearly spelled out on the document, are non-existent and therefore, non-binding and unenforceable. This means that all “negotiated rates” that are not in writing are irrelevant. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parol_evidence_rule) (http://thelawdictionary.org/parol-evidence-rule/)

A follow up question to the last comment was this one: what is a CLIN?”

Although I do not know for sure, I believe that “CLIN” in this context refers to “Contract Line Item Number” This would mean that if EOIR finds a legal way to pay less than the “previously negotiated rate” or If other interpreters are willing to work for less, the pay could be impacted.

Some interpreters are concerned about the travel expenses when they are asked to go out of town to interpret a hearing.  Apparently, the section of this contract that addresses this issue does not mention the English<>Spanish interpreters.  As far as travel expenses, keeping in mind that English<>Spanish interpreters cover the immense majority of the immigration cases, my feeling is that they could be leaving the English<>Spanish interpreters out of the equation because they feel they can meet these needs with Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and with local folks if needed.

It is also worrisome that said contract seems to emphasize “telephonic interpreting”, indicating that this service will be paid at an hourly fee. As we all know, like all professional services providers, interpreters sell their time.  Getting paid for the time interpreted based on an hourly pay would result in a detrimental situation for the interpreter, because nobody is paying for the time it takes to this professional services provider to get ready to do the rendition (travel to the courthouse or detention center, setting aside big chunks of time to do the assignment, etc.)

According to some colleagues, SOSi appears very firm on its insistence that interpreters compete for offered work assignments on a generally accessible “available assignments” website.  In other words, interpreters would no longer be contacted individually, as with Lionbridge, to accept or reject offered assignments.  Apparently, SOSi’s recruiters have explained the validity of this policy as a way to avoid having to hire assignment coordinators.

In my opinion, Immigration court interpreters must keep in mind that SOSi’s contractor history and system is based on bidding subcontractors. That is how most Department of Defense contracts work (and remember, they are primarily a defense contractor) so I don’t see them changing strategy. All interpreters could be considered subcontractors bidding for a job every time there is a need for an interpreter.

This is the most critical hour for our immigration court colleagues because this is when experienced agencies and contractors put in practice their well-rehearsed tactics.  Some interpreters may decide to sign a contract even though the “promised, negotiated fee” is different from what the contract states, or it is hidden in an appendix or table. Immigration court interpreters will only achieve the dignified treatment they deserve, and has been denied for so many years, if they continue to speak with one voice, and it will get more difficult unless those with more experience and formal academic education step in and help their colleagues.  We must remember that fear can derail any project, and the immigration court interpreters are not a homogeneous group. Unlike conference interpreters, many of them interpret at a questionable quality level, others may think, deeply inside, that the ridiculous fees offered by the contractor are not so bad, some may live from paycheck to paycheck, and may decide to sign the draconian contract; and some of them may not really be freelancers, but employees with no steady job.

The truth is, that to get to a professional fee, the interpreters have to be willing to stay away from the immigration courts for as long as it takes, and during that time, if they are truly freelance interpreters, they will find their income doing so many other interpreting assignments. If they are really independent professionals, they will have to come to terms with the realization that well-paid immigration court interpreting will not be an everyday thing; it will be one of many other interpreting assignments that the true freelancer will have to cover. EOIR is a client. It is not an employer.

The contractor, SOSi, LionBridge, or any other has a responsibility to their shareholders, and that is fine. The federal government has budgetary limitations, and that is fine.  It is because of these undisputed facts that the independent immigration court interpreter needs to understand that to get the financial resources to cover his professional fee, the service will have to be more efficient. Less hours of work at the EOIR, but better pay.  That is how the freelancing world works, and all interpreters will need to understand it; otherwise, the lesson learned will not be the one this entry begins with, but instead, the lesson will be that once again, because of the interpreters’ lack of determination and unity, things will stay the same.  I ask my dear friends and colleagues not to waste this unique opportunity in their careers.

Although these lines merely contain my personal opinion, and in no way this pretends to be any legal advice for anybody, if I were facing the situation these immigration court interpreters in the United States have in front of them, I would hold on to signing anything until it is clear who stays and who does not. If SOSi stays, to become attractive to the interpreter community, they will probably make some changes to their contractual policy towards the interpreters. If there is a new different language services agency, I would wait to see what they have to say first. Also, for my peace of mind and for the safety of my professional future, I would never sign a contract after talking to the HR people. I would ask for the legal department because I would need to understand, and know, the contractual terms, and the likelihood that they will be honored by the language service provider. I now invite you to share your opinion with the rest of us, and for the benefit of as many interpreters as possible.

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§ 9 Responses to A lesson to all interpreters.

  • […] Dear Colleagues, We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic. I am referring to the freelance United States immigration court interpreters who, so far, have refused to accept the contractual conditions offered by a new…  […]

  • […] Dear Colleagues, We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic. I am refe…  […]

  • Dejar colleague Antonio, thank you for this excellent summary and exposure of the dirty dealings from EOIR and their nasty contractors, for the first time our colleagues have united to oppose this hand over and would hopefully no one would sign any unfair contracts, wishing you the best.

  • Hilda says:

    I appreciate your effort as do many of our colleagues!

  • Luigi says:

    I’ve followed this issue and am glad to see so many interpreters standing up for their right to fair pay and decent working conditions. Let’s stand in solidarity with our colleagues no matter which area of interpreting we work in.

  • Sylvia Bigazzi says:

    It is unfortunate that a contractor as SOSi is allowed to cause so much inconvenience and material damage as they pay their nickel and take their chances. I am too familiar with proposal preparation when bidding for a contract. At best, the proposal document is mainly composed of 2 parts: a technical proposal representing the knowledge skills and ability to responsibly perform contract; and a price proposal representing a disclosure of the cost and profit margin of the contract. Inclusively, the document should represent a due diligence performed to reflect familiarity gained to successfully manage the contract. It will be curious to know who was responsible for reviewing this document and approving it for award. Perhaps there might be something else none of us know.

  • Sylvia Bigazzi says:

    Dear Rosado,
    Your article is truly informative for all of us interpreters. Thank you for taking the time and dedication of putting this information together for us. I’ve been a government contractor since 1986 and when contract awards have not been properly conducted, there are instruments available to stop the award. After the mess we have seen taking place with SOSi, I am beginning to believe that something went wrong in that award process. So far, to my understanding, they have failed 2 milestones and that is why they have been extended coverage with Lionbridge till Nov. 30,2015 to which there is no guarantee they will be ready by then. At this point, has anyone looked into this?

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