Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?
April 10, 2017 § 6 Comments
Today we will discuss a delicate subject that cannot be avoided as it impacts all freelance professional interpreters. I am talking about the cost of doing business versus the unreasonable cost of doing business. All professionals know that freedom and independence come with a price and we all know that we must pay it to enjoy the best things in life. It is called the cost of doing business.
The time an interpreter spends developing a client base talking to the best prospects in person, sitting in front of a computer answering their questions, or chatting with them over the phone takes part of our time, and for those who sell personal professional services time is money. Administrative chores such as printing glossaries, mailing documents and buying office supplies are also part of this cost of doing business. So is invoicing.
Getting paid for services already rendered could be a full-time job unless we are organized and develop a billing system that is accurate, user friendly, and does not take too much of our time. Morose payers, crooked client, and banking mistakes are unavoidable, they will always be there and we must factor them in as part of our business. We consider all these factors when bidding for a contract or providing an estimate. The thing we cannot factor in, and we must stay away from are never-ending bureaucratic proceedings filled with nonsensical steps and inspired by the most pure form of institutional chaos and individual incompetence. We can encounter this condition anywhere, but it is frequently found in government invoicing procedures.
We are all familiar with the long government invoice forms requesting absurd, and often repetitious, information. Nobody likes them, but sometimes the importance of the contract, or the monetary reward, for jumping through all the hoops justifies the sour moments. The unforgivable part is when interpreters go through this enormous waste of their time, answer dumbness award-winning questions from a bureaucrat, are disrespected, and what they collect is worth less than the time and energy spent navigating the bureaucratic maze of mediocrity. This is where we must draw the line.
All governments have obsolete, and often outdated, systems and procedures to pay interpreters. This is clear in the judiciary. You all know of puzzling methods followed by your respective states to pay you for work you did sometimes two or three months earlier. Once they realized they were losing money by working with a court system, some interpreters quit working with these clients, while others thought about it, but for different reasons: real financial need, fear, or ignorance, they remained as contractors for that court system. I stopped working federal cases with Criminal Justice Act appointed attorneys (CJA) two years ago when they changed to a system that injected the attorney as an intermediary between the service provider (interpreter) and client (courthouse) and never regretted the decision. I was losing more money doing paperwork and chasing after CJA attorneys and courthouses than the fee generated by my interpreting services.
I understand that to leave that work or stay and take it on the chin is a complex personal decision that only you can make. I also know of the fact that government agencies will always move slowly and have endless checks and balances because of their work volume. This makes it harder to decide what to do; unless there is a case so full of abuse and lack of respect for the interpreter as an individual, or our craft as a profession you have no choice but to get out of the zest pool before you are permanently harmed. This is what I am told has been happening for some time in a particular state.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you remember other occasions when I have written about irregularities in several court interpreter programs at the state-level, including this state, but this time the stories have a human aspect I could not keep to myself.
Sometime ago, this state adopted a billing system similar to the one used by other states (and non-judicial government agencies) that required certain information from the interpreter and some data about the work performed. In that state, interpreters are paid by the hour with a two-hour minimum guarantee (and a bunch of bizarre rules requiring the interpreter to travel to other cities and counties within the guaranteed period of time we will not discuss in this post). The billing system asks interpreters to enter their time, including the time when the “proceeding” ended. The billing system is confusing and it takes some skill and time to understand it and use it correctly. There is no technical help available on line from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts as far as I know.
As we all know, interpreters are busy interpreting, understanding the culture of the foreign client, and in a court setting they are also paying attention to their surroundings to protect their physical integrity. And to any regular human, the requirement of reporting the time of an assignment and writing down when the “proceeding” ended would be met by entering “3:30 pm”. In the dark dungeons of immeasurable insanity, an invoice can be rejected if I entered “3:30 pm” and the recording machine that keeps the record shows it ended at “3:24 pm”. The invoice will be sent back even when the times coincide because I entered “3:24 pm” instead of “15:24”. Dear friends and colleagues: They want military time!
You can see that the billing system is twin brother of the bizarre, and it could be intimidating for some colleagues. Depending on where in the world you come from, certain things can make you uncomfortable. Add to it the fact that, in the opinion of many, the staff in charge at the Administrative Office of the Courts (where there is not a single certified court interpreter) is not known for their warmth or devotion to the interests of the interpreters or the well-being of the profession, and you can get situations like the one of a very well-respected interpreter who I have known for many years, and strikes me as a professional and dedicated colleague.
This individual is an interpreter in a language combination common in some parts of the country, but rare in a small state like this one, although there are many speakers of the language all over the state. He felt confused, embarrassed, and intimidated to where, after having some invoices rejected for petty reasons like the one above, he did not invoice the state for about a year. A rare language interpreter, actually, the only certified interpreter with that language pair in the State, worked for a full year without getting paid. Finally, when he sent in all of his invoices to the Administrative Office of the Courts, he was met with a bunch of one-sentence communications (I saw 44) rejecting all of his filings because of some nonsensical excuse. To this day, even without pay and after being disrespected, the interpreter continues to work within the court system because he knows he is the only interpreter in that language combination in the state, and he feels bad for the people who go to the court system seeking justice.
This is not an isolated case. A year earlier, the same thing happened to another interpreter whose invoices were also rejected for petty reasons. This interpreter, also one of the most professional in the state, reacted differently, and after being retaliated against by the Judicial Branch administrative authorities, he decided he had had enough and quit. He is now interpreting for the courts in a different state. I was told by at least three interpreters that depending on the individual doing the filing, the same insignificant billing mistakes are often overlooked by the administration. If this was true, it could have something to do with who the person filing the invoice is. I will not get into that because it is a legal matter that interested parties will no doubt take to court. The issue we are discussing here is the collateral damage that irrational billing requirements by federal and state-level judicial authorities are creating.
These actions, presumably adopted to protect the quality of the services provided, and watch over the taxpayers’ money, are scaring away many good interpreters because of the undue burden and lack of flexibility by often well-intentioned, but not very knowledgeable, government workers who apply these policies with no discretion or awareness of the damage they cause, and the money they cost to the state. I for one stopped doing CJA attorney cases, one interpreter in the story moved to a different State, and the only certified interpreter in a rare language pair in the state may decide that he will not take it any longer and decline court assignments, forcing the authorities to hire out-of-state interpreters at a much higher cost to the citizens of the state. I now invite you to share your stories with the rest of us, and if you fear retaliation, I assure you that your name, place of residence, language combination, and any other information that could identify you, will not be included in your comments.