We must protect the interpreter, not the middleman.

June 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Think of a colleague, anywhere in the United States, who is battling a devastating illness and cannot get the treatment she needs because she has no health insurance, and medical expenses are so high she cannot cover them. I am sure you know an interpreter who has tried to get a job because he is worried about retirement years from now, but cannot get one because nobody is hiring. Language service providers want independent contractors because they have no legal obligation to provide employment benefits: health insurance, retirement plan, paid holidays and vacation, maternity leave, worker’s compensation insurance. If you prefer, look very carefully at your interpreter colleagues who have a sick parent, a disabled child, or another powerful reason to stay where they now live, and for that reason, they have to interpret for the agencies in town (local and multinational) and they do it in silence because they are afraid of losing these assignments, even when they are poorly paid, and they have to endure terrible, and sometimes humiliating working conditions.

Of course, you can always look at your own practice; I invite you to do so and honestly answer these questions: Do you enjoy having to check in and out with the agency every time you do an assignment? do you feel comfortable asking the person you just interpreted for to write down the hours you interpreted and to sign the form so you get paid by the agency? Do you find amusing having to spend hours on the phone and writing emails so you can get paid for a last-minute canceled assignment the agency does not want to pay? Maybe some of you like staying at the venue after interpreting is over because the agency makes you stay for the full time they retained you, even though all your work is done. Perhaps your definition of professional services includes cleaning up files or making photocopies until your time is up. Do you like it when the agency prints you business cards under their name and forces you to give them to the client? Do you like dodging all clients’ interpreting services questions by referring them to the agency every time? How about micromanaging your time on the assignment?

I doubt you enjoy any of these things, but even if you do, please understand that these intermediaries are taking advantage of you. They are forcing you to perform as an employee without paying you any benefits. Agencies distract you by telling you what a wonderful lifestyle you have, how flexible your schedule is, and everything thanks to them, your benefactors who find you work while you do not even lift a finger.

This is what the California State Legislature is trying to stop by forcing those employers who treat their “independent contractors” as employees to provide all benefits and protections people who do what these interpreters do for the agencies are legally entitled to. Think like an interpreter, stand up for your colleagues and the profession. Do not buy the arguments agencies are propagating. They do not see this legislation from the interpreters’ perspective. They see it from their business perspective.

For a long time, agencies have enjoyed this cozy business model that lets them charge their client for your service, pay you a part of it, and get you to do anything they want without incurring in any human resource expenses. It is a win-win situation for them. It is an abusive scheme for the interpreter.

Big multinational agencies are campaigning hard to defeat these legal protections not because they will “destroy the industry” as they put it, but because they will lose their golden egg goose. There will be no more freebies. They come at you with their lobbyists and make you believe they are on your side, they portray themselves as your savior and use scare tactics to make you think there will be no work for you if they are forced to lower their profits by living up to their legal and moral obligations to the interpreters.

Freelancing is not going to end after the bill becomes the law of the land in California or anywhere else. I am a freelance interpreter and I am not afraid. I do not work with these agencies, big or small, who now claim they are on a quest to save us all. New legislation or status quo will not impact my practice, and it will not impact that of most colleagues I work on a daily basis; however, leaving things as they are, giving back these agencies a position of power over the interpreters who work for them, will keep our less fortunate colleagues in the same deplorable conditions they have been working for all these years. This is a decisive moment. Multinational agencies and their lobby know it. They will fight the State of California with everything they have because they know the Golden State is a place where they can be unmasked and lose their privileges. Interpreters have organized labor backing their efforts because there are unions and guilds in California. Other States do not have them. The middleman knows that California is a decisive battlefield and they are spending money and sending their PR people to “convince” interpreters that defeating this legislation is best.

They argue they will not be able to hire interpreters because it would be too expensive. That many agencies will not survive and interpreters will lose a source of work. That is the point. The bill will only be successful when this serf-owner business model is erased. Will interpreters be more expensive because of the labor benefits? Yes. Interpreters deserve these protections. Agencies will either close or adjust their business models to comply with the legislation. Will agencies hire less interpreters? Of course, but the need for interpreters will not go away. There will be many more interpreters hired directly by clients. Is this going to hurt small agencies? It should. Small agencies should not exist in this business model because the essential condition for their survival is the denial of workers’ rights under the law.

Complaints that the legislation has exempted other professions like physicians and attorneys, but not interpreters are nonsense. Doctors and lawyers are well-established professions. Nobody would ever think of calling a “medical agency” and ask for a brain surgeon for tomorrow at 8:00am. If we want to be treated like these professions, we need to look like them. First step: get rid of the middleman. I know, some will say: “but…hairdressers are excluded and they are not a profession like doctors and lawyers” That is true and it is wrong. They should be covered by the legislation. The difference is: They got a better lobbyist and got their sorry exception in detriment of the people providing beauty services.

What about the argument that smaller agencies will not be able to stay in business because they will not afford it? In my opinion, these so-called agencies are not really agencies; most of them are a solo operation where somebody with connections acts as a referral service. I find this dangerous because these “agencies” just want a warm body with the right language combination for the assignment. I do not get the impression that messages on social media that read: “need French interpreter tomorrow at 2 pm” project exemplary quality control. Moreover, these people are not an agency, they should think and act like professionals and do what I do, and many of my colleagues do (all doctors and layers do the same thing): When your client asks for interpreters in a language combination different from mine, I just suggest a list of trusted experienced professional friends I am willing to vouch for, and let my client decide who he will retain and for what fee. I do not get involved, I do not get referral fees.

Finally, to the argument the ABC test is impossible to overcome: This is false. It can easily be overcome by a real independent contractor relationship. That is the point. If any agency could disguise a de-facto employee as an independent contractor the law would be pointless.

I understand what multinational agencies, their lobbyists, small agencies, and those solo practitioners who call themselves an agency without actually being one are doing. They are defending their very lucrative status quo. They have a right to fight for it and save their “industry”. As always, my concern are the interpreters and the profession, and from this perspective, I see the new California legislation as a step forward to our professionalization because, on top of protecting our colleagues in need, it will weaken the agency model, a necessary condition to become a true profession worthy of a place in the pantheon of professions. This is the time to listen to our colleagues and defend our profession, not the middleman interests.

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