How to survive COVID-19 and get ready for what is next.
April 7, 2020 § 8 Comments
During these weeks of confinement, we have been bombarded with phone calls and emails directed to us as professionals. Most of us are constantly getting emails asking us to reduce our professional fees (“rates” as they are referred to by agencies), to charge our interpreting services by the minute, to register for a webinar, to enroll in a program, to buy software, hardware, or a remote interpreting platform. We get emails and read articles basically telling us that in-person work is gone forever. We get communications from somebody assuring us that, despite these changes, the horrible economy that awaits us at the end of this crisis, they can save us! Add this to the pandemic news broadcasted on TV around the clock, couple it with your (some justified) concerns about your professional future and the uncertainty of the duration, and sooner or later you will be depressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, or scared.
Faced with this reality, I decided I better save my sanity and keep me apt to go back to a more competitive than-ever market awaiting right behind the light at the end of the tunnel. My first thought was: What should I do? and that is how I came up with the three-step strategy I would like to share with all of you.
First step: Eliminate your worries.
I realized that in this new, but temporary world, I needed to feel like I was in charge of my life. I know I am not enjoying full freedom of action because my life, and that of everyone else, depend on my complying with stay at home, social distancing, and other public health rules. I thought, however, that I may control certain things that can improve the quality of my life during these tough times.
I realized that to improve my quality of life in quarantine, I had to settle my financial issues as much as I could. It came to me right away: I had to get paid by all clients who owed me money for work performed before the coronavirus restrictions. Fortunately, there were few in my case. I contacted them all, asked them how they were doing in the middle of this crisis; I wished them well, assured them they could count on me for any interpreting needs now, explained that I was facing the exact same problems they had in front, and I asked them very nicely to please pay me what they owed. In my case, they all paid, but I was ready to negotiate payment terms if needed. I was prepared to accept payment for fifty percent of the amount owed now, and the rest in sixty days. I figured this was a better solution than a total loss, or a threat of litigation that would take even longer to run its course through the system and be very costly. I also have two more clients where the payment is not due yet.
Next, I contacted my clients who cancelled or postponed events to the end of this year or next year and after following the same good bedside manners strategy above, I asked for money. Where I had an Act of God, Force Majeure clause in the contract, I made the clients aware of the fact I knew I had a right to collect from them, and asked them to honor the agreement. I had two of these and they both promptly paid. One of them told me the check was already in the mail (and it was true) and the other thanked me for reminding them of the clause. The legal situation was different with the other seven postponements or cancellations I have had so far, my contract did not cover force majeure. Fortunately, and mainly because my clients are direct clients who value me, not agencies that see me as a commodity, I negotiated with them and got them to reimburse me 100 percent of the expenses I had made (minimal as I will explain later) and they were comfortable with my proposal of paying me fifty percent of my fee. As I explained, this was the most decent and ethical way to care for each other because we would all absorb one half of the loss. Six of these clients have paid, and I need to test my strategy with the last one who just cancelled yesterday.
Continuing with my income recovery, my next target were airlines and hotels. Most of my work requires traveling, so cancellation of assignments meant cancelling flights and hotel reservations. If you are like me, I treat air travel in two ways: When the client is willing to pay a fully refundable fee for the seat I want, I purchase the ticket and get reimbursed by the client when I bill them after the assignment. When the client cannot, or will not agree to the above, because it is very important to travel business so I can work rested, I purchase the business class seat at the lower non-refundable fee and then get reimbursed by the client as I explained before. You need not worry about this if your client directly buys your ticket. For many reasons, mainly, because it allows me to be in charge of my professional and personal agenda, and if natural disasters occur (hurricanes, snow storms, tornadoes, etc.) and now pandemics, I generally fly on the same airline (or its partners when I have no choice). This makes the refund process much easier. I only needed one phone call to cancel all my flights. Fully-refundable and non-refundable tickets were treated the same during COVID-19. This means there is no cancellation fee or extra charge to change the tickets to a future date. In my case, tickets for those flights to countries where travel is currently banned were fully reimbursed, and tickets for other destinations were refunded by applying the full amount (no deductions) to future flights to the same destinations or to others of similar value, paying the difference for a more expensive destination, or getting a credit for less expensive ones. So far, the deadline to purchase, not to travel, on those tickets is December 31 of this year or earlier if the tickets were purchased before March 1, 2020. All this took me about 5 minutes because traveling on the same airline gives you certain privileges over the rest. This is a reason I constantly encourage my colleagues to travel on the same airline. Delta, United and even Amtrak have announced they will lower requirements to keep status next year. American Airlines should follow soon. Regarding hotel reservations is the same thing. Cancelling a reservation will have no cost to you as long as you do it ahead of time. Even rooms paid in full at the time of reservation are being refunded when cancelled due to COVID-19 if the cancellation is due to a travel ban or quarantine order.
Once I did this, I saw I needed to adjust my budget. I carefully looked at my expenses and saw where I could cut expenses without altering my lifestyle even more. The first thing was the big savings associated with eating at home every day. For years, I had all my meals at restaurants and bars. I can now cover a week of food expenses with the money I used to spend in about 2 days of eating out. Next, I got rid of some expensive cable TV channels I do not need now. I cannot have satellite dish TV because I live in a high rise that does not permit it, but I noticed there were very expensive channels I do not need. I kept my news channels plan and my foreign TV plan because I need the news to see what is going on outside, and I need to keep my window to the rest of the world by watching TV stations from Europe, Asia and Latin America. But I decided I could cancel the very expensive sports package. I can survive without some 40 channels that cannot show me anything new because there are no sports been played at this time anywhere in the world. I will subscribe to this package again once things go back to normal. The same goes for all the pay movie channels. Cancel HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, The Movie Channel, etc. Instead, pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or a similar service. You will save tons of money.
A very important way to save money is to cancel any plans to attend a translation/interpreting conference this year. Many of the good ones have been canceled or postponed until next year already, and others will follow soon. Even if the pandemic is under control later during the year, and air travel and distancing rules are relaxed, events that inexplicably do not cancel this year will have poor attendance and fewer presentations. Even after all restrictions are lifted, people will be afraid to get on a plane or attend a workshop in a room with another 50 individuals. Conferences are a great investment in our continuing education, but understand they are expensive (some of them outrageously expensive). Do not spend your money going to a conference this year.
Do your research. Most governments are offering assistance to independent contractors. Credits, loans, direct payments, unemployment insurance, free medical services, are some benefits our colleagues can get. Do your individual research by country, and sometimes region, province or state, to see what you are eligible for.
Finally, accept that doing a quarantine is fine. Embrace this provisional reality. Reduce your stress. Watch the news once a day. Do not look at the screen every hour to see how many new cases and deaths in the last hour. It is not a sporting event. Read a book, watch a movie, a Broadway musical, or an opera on your smart TV; spend time doing a hobby that relaxes you, whether it is crossword puzzles, stamps, knitting, or playing video games. Just relax, eliminate your worries, be at peace.
Second step: Eliminate the noise.
Once you are relaxed, you need to stay relaxed. The only way to do it is eliminating everything that stresses you out, especially when this uneasiness is caused by others trying to stay afloat (nothing wrong with that) by making you believe you need a service or product they are selling, and you need it now (nothing good with that).
The first thing we need to do is to ignore most of what comes into your home via internet. Guard yourself against scammers who want to tap into your credit cards and bank accounts. Ignore any correspondence from banks or stores asking you to confirm or update your personal information. If your bank wants to contact you, they will send you a secure message to your bank application account. Also ignore a sales pitch from an agency or platform. As of now, we are getting invitations to webinars and online workshops by people we did not even know existed or even if we did, we never knew them as teachers or trainers. Everybody is trying to make money in these tough times, but keep your priorities straight. There are some legitimate webinars offered online at this time (too many in my opinion) but even here, look at your finances and decide if you can afford the webinar now, and also remember that even a class with a great instructor may not be a good choice. Ask yourself how much will you learn from a presentation while wrestling with your kids at the same time. And then you have the free webinars and workshops. They entice you to do it, to give in to peer pressure, and to make you feel guilty for bypassing a free event. Once again, look at your priorities, guard your peace of mind. Understand that many of these free seminars are not free. They are sales events similar to the ones you see late at night on TV. They will not charge you for the seminar, but will encourage to buy their products and services, and will get your information for ulterior purposes. Don’t forget these are people you may know, but they are acting like salesmen. Noting illegal with that, but do not believe everything they tell you. The world is not going to remote interpreting forever. If you are a court interpreter or a community interpreter, you will go back to the jails and courthouses, you will be working at community centers and school classrooms once this is all over. Do not spend the money you don’t have, with no reliable source of income, because of the promise of a future when you will work from home. Remember, if it sounds too good…
If you are conference interpreters, assess if you truly work conferences most of the time. If they call you for two conferences a year, and one of them is at your local community center where you work with your court interpreter friend with a table top booth, think long and hard before buying an expensive computer, microphone, headset and internet service. You probably will get none of the work they spoke about during the free online event. Even if you are a full time conference interpreter in the United States or Western Europe considering a big investment in times of coronavirus: Have you thought these same agencies now trying to sell you a service or a product, will generally retain the services of interpreters from developing countries where they get paid for a full week of work what you make in one day back in your country? Again, there is nothing illegal here, but think long and hard before building a studio in your home. There will be more events held remotely than before, but big conferences, important business and diplomatic negotiations will continue to be in-person. These have cancelled for now. They have not migrated to remote. Have you heard of the meeting after the meeting? The most important in-person events are going nowhere.
Some chats offered and organized for free by some individuals or professional associations are fine; I recommend them. If you live alone, they allow you to talk to someone besides the cat, and you will know they are not trying to sell you anything.
Please stay away from well-intentioned friends who know diddly about medicine, public health, and the economy, but constantly guide you through how to protect yourself. Do not listen to those calling you to tell you to exercise every day. Right now, you are in quarantine with your life upside down. You are not training for the 2021 Olympics. It is OK to spend the day watching Netflix; do not feel bad because you did not run a marathon around your kitchen table today; you are not a bad professional interpreter if you ignored “the” webinar because you felt like playing videogames. It is OK. No one knows you better than you. I have nothing against the cable company, those who advertise online, or those promoting their webinars. I am only focusing everything from the perspective of the professional interpreter stuck at home with an uncertain future ahead. These are tough times. Eliminate the noise. Have that ice cream.
Third step: Prepare for life after COVID-19
Once you are relaxed and the noise is gone, you can focus on the future by doing certain things you control and will help you fill in your days at home with valuable things.
At the top of this list you must write down: “Keep in touch with my direct clients.” Maintain that relationship by reminding them you are here to help them. Communicate periodically, you know your clients and you know what works better for each case. Do not call them every day; an email every two weeks should be enough. When you email them, do not start by expressing your worries or by asking for work. Show them empathy, ask them about their families, employees, and business. Make them see you understand what they are going through because you are experiencing the same. Be ready to assist them with small things during the crisis by offering, as an exception, remote services while educating them about the pros and cons of a remote solution. Explain to them what they should expect from a remote service with you working from an apartment with 3 children in the room next door so they lower their expectations. Acknowledge they have to make difficult decision, and reassure them of your presence in their back-to-work plans, stressing that you will be ready the day they open their doors again. You must be ready to hit the ground running from day one, even if day one is postponed repeatedly. You do not want them to catch you unprepared. You cannot give them a chance to think of looking for another interpreter because you were not ready.
Never agree to lower fees or poor working conditions during the quarantine of after. Doing so will cause you permanent damage. You will never work for a better fee, and you will be known by other interpreters as the individual who works for peanuts. No colleague will ever ask you to work with them, and people will hate it when forced by a client to share the booth with you. I understand not everybody is prepared to face a crisis that includes total loss of income. If this is your case, think of what I say in this paragraph before you accept the “job” offer. If you must make money to put food on the table, you should look for alternate sources of income. If you interpret you are at least bilingual. Perhaps you can do tutoring on line, lead advanced virtual conversation groups for people learning a foreign language. Many interpreters have a professional degree in other disciplines and others are well-read and traveled. They can tutor on history, literature, English, chemistry, biology, math, etc., I am not asking you to replace professional school teachers, just to tutor kids and adults so they can do their homework, learn and practice something they like, and have something to do while locked up at home. Remember: many parents would love this option and rest from their kids for two hours a day. This way you will make ends meet without permanently tarnishing your professional reputation.
A big part of getting ready for what is coming next is to keep in touch with your trusted colleagues. Make sure that during COVID-19 you talk to those interpreters you regularly share the booth with, and the ones with a different language combination in the booth next door. Email and chat with them regularly. Be all ready as a group so you can tackle a project right away. These are the colleagues you can share direct clients with because you know they will not steal away from you any of them. The key is to be ready to work from day one, before somebody gives your client the idea of contacting an agency. Just as I suggest you stay in touch with your trusted professional group, I tell you not to contact the agencies during COVID-19. Unlike your trusted colleagues and direct clients, this would be a waste of time. Agencies will call you (if you want to work with them) regardless. They look at a list and select you from there. Remember all those bulk mails where they ask you to recommend somebody if you cannot accept the job? They want a warm, inexpensive body. They do not want you. Set your priorities.
Finally, spend quality time with yourself. Do things for you that you never had time to do before. Spend quality time with your roommates: spouse, partner, children, extended family and house guest. Compromise and try to keep the peace. Remember you are all confined to a small space.
Dear colleagues, this post was written for you, the individual professional interpreter, and it offers a perspective that benefits you over anyone else. Please share with the rest of us your comments about the things you are doing to stay sane, safe, and ready to work from day one, and more important: stay healthy and stay safe (physically, mentally, and emotionally).