Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?

April 10, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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All governments have obsolete, and often outdated, systems and procedures to pay interpreters.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.

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§ 6 Responses to Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?

  • As a freelancer I should not be dictated on how to bill a particular client. I should be able to send My invoice and then they can hire administrators to enter it into whatever inbounds format they want. This encroachment on how we do business needs to be resisted. If we are to be told what tools to use and what procedures to follow then we are no longer freelancers but employees. Unfortunately Uber drivers lost this battle because their lawyer preferred to settle. Disgraceful. Companies simply settle as that is cheaper than changing their MOs. Thank you for increasing the awareness of our colleagues on what we are billing, as interpreting is just part of what it takes to run a solo freelance practice.

  • Kathleen Morris says:

    Many contractors in the Illinois Northern District are suffering financially, due to being owed thousands of dollars in so far uncollectable CJA jail interview and written translation work. The e-voucher billing system appears to be designed for failure here. Too much of our time is spent chasing after long overdue payments, and jumping thru non-sensical hoops designed by the Court of the Clerk.

    In fact, even inquiring about the payment status of an old invoice with Fiscal, is seen as good cause by that very Court Clerk, to immediately eliminate that contractor from their data base of available FCCI’s. I question the legality of this tactic, but it is a reality in our district.

  • Hartmut Teuber says:

    The problem lies largely in competition with “new faces” of independent practitioners and agencies in the field.I have seen this in the area of ASL/English interpreting area how many interpreting agencies of spoken languages are trying to enter the business of interpreting involving a signed language.  They are all incompetent in this area to place competent interpreters in situations involving Deaf and hearing persons.  They lack intrinsic knowledge of the linguistic population who uses a signed language.  Therefore, they MUST stay out of the business. I as a freelance ASL/English interpreter have been receiving inquiries of availability of jobs from spoken languages agencies. I have found them to be wholly incompetent to do such a business and a danger to the deaf clients and hearing providers.

  • The following comment comes from a colleague who was allowed to remain anonymous:
    I had the opportunity to be part of the bureaucratic machinery that we have to deal with as interpreters. It is frustrating to see invoices rejected for a difference of 20 cents in an envelope with a 42 cent stamp on it. It is a huge waste of time and taxpayer money when you spend 2 or 3 hours in rejecting the invoice, writing the memo to reject the invoice and then reviewing the new invoice when it arrives. So many agencies still use snail mail to communicate with vendors even though it is more expensive and time consuming. Something as simple as a two-sentence email requesting a change to the invoice or even better, an email requesting permission to make a pen and ink correction to the 20 cent mistake would suffice.
    Many bureaucrats fight against the senseless red tape every day and some do manage to gain some ground. My only suggestion is to offer alternatives methods of correction and tracking of payments, this may give somebody in the system the opportunity to claim they have discovered common sense and maybe win them some kind of monetary award for saving the agency some money.

  • The following comment comes from a colleague who was allowed to remain anonymous:
    God bless you Tony. I had invoices rejected without any written explanation. I was told verbally that my invoices have been paid. These were four invoices. I called the person in charge and two or three others, and no one responded. I am positive I am being retaliated against. There is also all this talk about protecting taxpayers’ money. Does this have to be done by rejecting invoices all the time, and when you call for help no one responds?

  • Thank you for your article, I can relate to this billing chaos at every level. I used to receive under payment for invoices without an explanation, payment took 3-4 months, invoices rejected because I did not write the name of the judge legibly, etc., So, after interpreting for the court system for 17 years, I decided to limit my availability for state assignments. I am fortunate to have many faithful translation clients and interpreting assignments in other fields that keep me busy. It’s been 14 months since my last state AOC assignment, and I sincerely don’t miss it!
    Please keep my personal information anonymous. Thank you.

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