Interpreter fees and costs. Avoid misunderstandings.

March 1, 2017 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many interpreters complain that clients do not want to cover their expenses; that they do not understand why we charge for costs separately when we are already asking for a well-deserved hefty fee.  The complaining seems to include agencies and direct clients alike, and it makes many of our colleagues uncomfortable.

Interpreters dislike the subject because they do not how to charge fees and costs, or because they do not really understand why we must be paid for both of these items.  As for the client, many agencies just do not want to pay because their business plan is to profit as much as they can get away with, and to keep the interpreter from the money for as long as possible, or for as long as the interpreter allows it. Direct clients have different reasons, but they can all be summarized in one: lack of knowledge. They do not know what the interpreter does.

As we just saw, they may have different reasons to dislike, and frankly avoid, paying for interpreter fees and costs, but most of their hesitation and reluctance to pay can be eliminated with some clarity and a simple system.

In the past, I have discussed the items we must consider when calculating our professional fee and what costs we need to pass on to our client. You can read these blog entries somewhere else in my blog.  Today we will explore a system that will help you educate the ignorant client and will protect you from the Draconian one-sided “job opportunities” that some agencies put on your table.

The first thing I do when I am contacted by a serious client who wants to retain my professional services, is to find out as much about the assignment as possible: type of interpretation that will be required, subject matter, name of the individuals giving the speeches or presentations, dates when my work will be needed, duration of the project, place where the services will be provided, work conditions, equipment to be used, languages provided, name of the other interpreters already retained or prospective interpreters who are being considered for the assignment, and I always want to know what it I exactly that the client expects to be covered by my professional services.

After a good chat, and sometimes more than one when the project is big and the client needs to get the answers to some of my questions, I inform them that they will hear from me within 24 hours. I explain that they will receive an email with an estimate for the professional fees and costs I would charge for the assignment as presented to me. Then I get to work.

I already have a format that matches my professional style and personality. This gives me the organization and coherence needed to be able to explain what I do and how much I charge.

I suggest you develop your own format for your estimates, and as always, everything that I suggest in this entry, and anywhere else in the blog, is not intended as legal or financial advice; these are just mere suggestions that in no way guarantee you any result. If you need to know financial, legal, or other consequences, please retain a professional.

Whether you prepare your estimate form on your own, or with professional help, I strongly encourage you to at least include the following:

On a nice document, formatted to your taste as far as font size and style, letterhead and logo, and color of both, background and font, start with your document’s personalized title: Something like “Estimate of Professional Interpreter Fees and Costs Submitted to XX Corporation for the XX Conference in XX City from X date to X date”.

Next, inset an introductory section where you go into more detail about the service you would provide to the client. Something like this: “This estimate is submitted at the request of XX Corporation, with its address at XX Avenue in XX City, regarding professional interpreting services XX language<>YY language in XX City, on the following dates: from X date to Y date, during the XX Conference of XYZ Topic”.

On the next section of your estimate, you need to talk about your professional fees, so start by including a section title such as: “Professional Fees”, or “Professional Interpreter Fees”, or something similar. I would always include the term “professional” to underline the fact that, if you are hired, they would be retaining the services of a professional just like a physician or an accountant, not an unskilled laborer. Then, I would describe my work with words like: “My professional daily (or hourly) fees for simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting, and sight translation (depending on the service you are about to provide) is $XX (per day or hour) for a total of XX days (or hours). The total amount would be: $XX (unless there are other interpreting fees for additional hours (days) as described below. The professional fee for hours of service in excess of 8 per day would be $XX per hour in XX amount of minute increments.” After that paragraph, you can add:

“This professional service includes (telephonic) (in person) interpreting at the convention center (hotel, plant, law office, etc.) Other than the professional tasks above, I will not provide any other services such as (answering phones, making tea, hussle for customers, technical support), or any other service that goes beyond interpreting services and the cultural adviser function implicit in conference interpreting. Under no circumstance I will drive a vehicle for you or any of your clients, customers, associates, etc.”

At this point you will be ready to move on to your “expenses section” of the document. Start with the most expensive ones that the client has to advance you or reimburse you for. I always start with transportation expenses: Airfare or train tickets. Maybe something similar to this: Payment in advance for the flight from XX City to YY City and back”. If possible, do your research so you can include the total cost, including taxes and incidentals such as luggage, priority boarding, and similar services unless your frequent flyer status allows all those things for free. Always get suggestions based on the Airlines you want to fly, the airports you prefer, and the time of the day when flying is more convenient to your Schedule. Make sure to include something in case airfare or train ticket prices change because the client takes too long to approve the estimate and sign a contract. Saying something like this may come in Handy: “The ticket prices above are not guaranteed until purchased. For that reason, prices could increase. If this happens, it is your responsibility to advance the correct amount according to the price on the day the ticket is purchased”.  You can also include your arrival time and your departure time from the city where the assignment will take place. This way the client does not get any ideas about putting you to work before you get there, or up to 10 minutes before your flight leaves. You know your clients, and everybody is different, but for long trips I would require a business or first class seat in order to get to work fresh instead of tired from the trip.

I would then insert my ground transportation expenses. Many interpreters do not include these expenses. They should. Your client needs to pay for your ground transportation back at home from your office to the airport, and back; for your transportation from the airport to the hotel, and back, at your destination, and from all trips to and from the hotel to the venue where you will be interpreting. I do not believe that you have to charge for a stretch limo, but do not use the airport shuttle or the subway either.  Travel by Taxi, Uber, or something similar. Based on prior experience, include an estimated total amount for ground transportation, but explain to the client that this is an expense they will have to reimburse because at this time you have no way to know the exact amount of the expenses; unless you both agree to set a fixed amount ahead of time and that lump sum would be all you get. You may lose some money, you may end up with a little more than the expenditure, but at least you would include ground transportation in the same check with your fees and all other expenses.

Once you covered transportation, the next big expense is lodging. I would demand a room in the same hotel where the event is to take place, and I would never accept sharing the room with another person. No roommates, no motels of dubious reputation, not cheaper hotels outside the county an hour away from the venue. Besides the hotel room, I always ask for the internet service. As you know, must budget hotels include internet service (and breakfast) in the price of the room, but most top hotels (where you will be staying during the assignment) have an extra charge. The client must pay for it, as you will need access to the internet for professional reasons. I would insert something like this under “lodging expenses” on my estimate form: “Payment of hotel room for the following nights: XX, YY, and ZZ at ‘XX Hotel’ in XX City, plus any charges for internet access. As of today, the hotel rate for a single one bed room is $XX (plus taxes and internet service charges) but said amount is subject to change. If so, you must cover the hotel fare applicable at the time of the reservation”.  You can also agree with your client that they will directly take care of the hotel and internet service. This is common in big events because the client already has a hotel group rate and they will just add you to the same package.

An estimate can include many other things, but there is at least one more expense that is usually forgotten and should be included in all estimates. I am talking about your Per Diem.

Meals during professional trips are expensive.  Most venues offer costly restaurants, and many times interpreters have to eat at airports or order room service late at night when they finally finish work. These meals have to be paid by the client. In the United States, and in many other countries, the federal government has pre-set fixed Per Diem rates based on the particular city or town’s cost of living. In the United States, the IRS has a list on line for all towns and cities in the country, and the U.S. Department of State has the same thing for all destinations overseas. I usually inform the client that I have calculated my Per Diem based on said rates. It would be very hard for the client to argue against a Per Diem already established that is continuously adjusted and universally accepted.  I would put the following under “Per Diem”: “I will receive as Per Diem, the daily amount established by the IRS for XX City. This amount for the year of XX is $XX per day, for a total of $XX for XX days.”

The next section of my estimate would deal with cancellation charges, and I would spell it out in detail, even if it turns repetitive, and ugly for a language lover. I would cover different possibilities because the more advanced the notice of cancellation, the better chances I will have to get my income on another assignment somewhere else; the closer to the date of the event, the more money I need to get as compensation from the cancelling client.

Expenses are different. Regardless of the advanced notice, a client would always be obligated to reimburse me for all expenses already made up to that time, including cancellation fees in those cases where an expense allows cancellation, but this will generate a penalty or fee. For this reason, it is always better to get part of the fee and expenses in advance. It is better to prepare a statement explaining the client how much money you will return (if applicable) than turning into a detective and chase the morose, and now uninterested client half way around the world to get paid and reimbursed.

I would include something along these lines:

“Cancellation Policy:

Notice of cancellation XXX or more weeks before the event: No professional fees, but the client must reimburse me for all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service).  Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment.

Notice of cancellation XX or more weeks before the event: XX Percentage of the total professional fee, and all expenses already made, and for all expenses generated for returning the rest of the advanced payment to the client (because some banks charge for this service).  Said amount will be deducted from the amount to be returned to the client if there are enough funds available. Otherwise, the client must provide payment for the amount in excess of the advanced payment…” And so on.

The next thing I include on my estimates is a table or a graphic with a summary of my fees and expenses, including totals. This makes it clear for the client. Besides the table, I would add the following so the estimate is crystal clear:  “The client must pay the total amount indicated, unless there are any changes due to an increase on interpretation hours (days) or changes to any of the transportation or lodging prices. Please keep in mind that some taxes and additional charges are yet to be included, and they must be reimbursed to me as soon as I inform you of their existence”.

Then comes the terms of payment. This is crucial and when you spell it out for the client to see from day one, you are saving yourself some headaches and extra expenses due to late payments or disputed amounts. Payment should be prompt and non-compliance should carry consequences. How about something that brings up important points like these ones:

“The client must pay all professional fees and expenses as follows:

Advanced payment: Once this estimate is approved, the client will have 48 hours to make the advance payment, which will include XX percentage of the total professional fees, airfare (according to the applicable rate) hotel charges at the applicable rate (including taxes and internet service) unless the client directly pays for the hotel and related charges, including internet access. The advance payment must be in cashier’s check or by electronic transfer to my account. The remaining professional fees and expenses must be paid in full no later than XXX date. Any delays on this payment will generate a XX percent late payment interest”.

Finally, I would include the date and a place on the document for me and the client to sign as proof of agreement to the terms of this estimate. Like this: “Delivered to the client for review and acceptance on this date XX”, followed by both of our signatures.

Dear friends and colleagues, I believe that there is much to be done. We have to educate the direct client and identify and exclude corrupt greedy agencies, but we can also make our lives a little less complicated by adding some clarity to our charges. I have found that it is easier to explain my fees, expenses, and the scope of my professional services to those clients who have seen my estimate on paper. It allows them to understand and ask questions, and it gives us a road map to organize all those items that perhaps we have been paying for when in reality it is the client who has to cover them.

I hope that you find this explanation useful, and it motivates you to be more organized, assertive, and (because the contents of this blog post are not legal advice) to visit your attorney or accountant if you need professional help to develop your unique, tailor-made estimate of professional fees and costs. I now ask you to please share with the rest of you any tips you may have to make this process smoother and faster.

Things to look for in an interpreting contract.

December 8, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

There has been a lot of discussion about interpreting services contracts in the past weeks.  The SOSi immigration court interpreter contract was a trending topic all over the social media.  Many colleagues debated, attacked, and defended parts of the contract like I never saw before.  This circumstance, together with other events in the professional world that involve contract negotiation (and the contents of the agreement itself) such as all federal contracts that were up for renewal at the beginning of the new U.S. federal government’s fiscal year, several irregularities with some state government contracts that appeared prior to their new fiscal year in August, and just the wording of quite a few contracts drafted by interpreting services agencies, large and small, made me think long and hard about the importance of negotiating an agreement and reviewing the letter of the proposed contract before committing myself to anything by the power of my signature.

Signing a contract is a very important act that can impact our professional career and reputation for a long time. It is not, as some colleagues may think now and then, a simple ceremonial thing that needs to be done in order to get the big assignment or the prestigious event. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law. (Black’s Law Dictionary). As Samuel Williston puts it, “A contract is a promise, or a set of promises, for breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty…” (A treatise on the Law of Contracts §1, at 1-2. Walter H.E. Jaeger ed., 3d ed. 1957)

I suggest that we should all reflect on the meaning and magnitude of the concept above, and apply ourselves to the negotiating of the terms and conditions that will govern our professional services with a client, and that we review in detail the final document that the client (whether it is a direct client or an agency) tenders for our signature before we undertake any obligations.  In fact, I recommend that before signing any agreement, you give your attorney a chance to review the terms of the contract to see if there are any “unwanted” harmful terms. Even if you do not have an attorney who regularly works with you, I encourage you to get one. It is that important, and in most countries it is tax-deductible as part of the cost of doing business.  Just think for a moment: the other party had a lawyer draft the contract, that attorney is being paid by the party who has an interest in the delivery of the professional service that is different from yours, and many times it is the opposite.  Although ethical and professional, the job of the counterpart’s attorney is to protect his client’s interests, not yours.  Just like you would never enter a car race on foot while the others are driving a car, you should never sign a contract unless, and until, you are familiar with all of its contents because all of your questions have been answered to your satisfaction, and all your concerns have been put to rest.  Remember: You are an interpreter and you provide a professional service.

There are different types of contract that you will encounter during your professional life; government agencies will always have their standard contract, some large agencies, corporations and organizations will have their own contracts as well.  Smaller agencies and direct clients will likely accept your version of a contract or will adapt their own document to your demands and suggestions. Finally, some of your regular clients may not use written contracts. They will negotiate assignments with you more informally. That is fine, but remember, the document is not the contract; the contract is the meeting of the minds, the agreement of the parties. In other words, even in these cases you have a contract.

I always review all contract conditions, even when dealing with the government, and when I dislike a certain term, or I consider necessary to add some conditions, I propose the changes. You will be surprised to learn that more often than not, the counterpart agrees to the amendments to their standard contract. By the same token, I am also flexible and open minded about the counterpart’s proposals and suggestions. I always consider them and give them a lot of thought. On many occasions I agree to the changes, provided they do not leave me unprotected and the potential risk is something I can live with.  Finally, in the case of a regular client who never signs any documents with me, I always put all essential terms of the verbal contract in writing and send them to the client by email as a memorandum of understanding, stating very clearly that by receiving the email and not taking any action within the first 24 hours, the client is consenting to the terms and conditions included on the email. This way essentials such as type of event, dates and location, scope of services and fee are always included, as well as reimbursement of expenses, travel costs and fees, late payment penalties, cancellation policy, and standard working conditions according to the type of assignment (equipment, booths, team interpreting, materials and glossaries, etc.)

As we see above, contracts can come on different presentations and they originate for different reasons depending on the client who drafted the contract; but, regardless of the type of contract, there are always certain things we should look for in an interpreter contract. I will share with all of you some of those items I look for in all contracts, and I hope this helps you as much as it helps me; however, I would like to make it very clear that my suggestion is that you always go to an attorney before signing any contract. The following are just suggestions that have worked for me, but in no way they are intended to constitute legal advice of any kind. All situations are different and I do not know your particular situation, so please understand that this is not legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you that kind of professional help.

These are the things I look for in a professional contract:

First. The scope of the service. I always look for the specifics: What the client is actually retaining me for. It is very important because some clients have the idea that once you are hired, you are theirs during the assignment to do anything that they consider part of the service. They are wrong. You agreed to perform a certain service and you are only getting paid for that service. Nothing else. Be careful about services description that may “include” translation services, being responsible for giving out and collecting interpreting equipment, other peripheral interpreting services not previously discussed such as dinners, press conferences, book signings, etc.

Second. I always pay attention to the wording because it tells me a lot about the client. I look for “telling” words such as interpretation industry (instead of profession) and in the case of an agency, how they refer to their end client: If they refer to them in the contract as “the customer” instead of “the client”, we will have a very difficult relationship because it is clear that my profession is an industrial commercial activity to them. I always discuss these issues when present in the contract, educate the client about the profession, and usually they agree to change the contract’s terminology (at least for my assignments if not for the rest of my colleagues)

Third. The grounds for termination of the contract. This is a crucial item because an early termination could impact your income for at least a few days or weeks. The reasons to terminate a contract early have to be fair, and they should include both parties. I have found many contracts where only the client can do an early termination. That is wrong, unfair, and highly suspicious. The grounds should apply to both parties, and in long-term contracts, they should include the lack of payment or late payment of your fee as a cause for early termination.

Fourth.  The famous confidentiality clause that although redundant since we are professionals and as such are legally and ethically bound to this duty of confidentiality, it should be included for the peace of mind of the client and his attorneys; however, the same provision should always include that the confidentiality will be observed with the exceptions of law. Yes, the law allows you to break this duty of confidentiality, even in the client-attorney privilege case, when there are certain facts that justify the lifting of this duty. For example, if you have to file a lawsuit against your client for lack of payment, or when your client sues you and you need to defend yourself. In those cases (and others) the law allows you to break the duty, limited to what may be necessary, to defend yourself or to exercise legal action.

Fifth. I look for cases where the client contractually limits his liability, and when I find it I do not like it and demand that it be changed. Although many legislations permit that an individual’s liability be reduced or limited by agreement of the parties, it is ridiculous for the other party to suggest, and for you to agree, to be exposed to all kinds of damages in case of a lawsuit, while the agency and the end client just sit and observe how you lose your business (in one of the best possible outcomes) or all of your assets and life-long savings (as a very good possibility). This is a no-no. Everybody should have the same exposure and respond for the damages caused according to their contribution to the loss. This is a very good reason why the parties should always request a copy of the other parties’ liability insurance certificate.

Sixth. There are some provisions that raise many red flags as they denote a clear intent to tilt the balance in favor of one of the parties (and that party is not usually you). Any provision that makes it illegal for the interpreter to talk to the media about the terms and conditions of the contract, unless we are dealing with information protected by the duty of confidentiality or the client-attorney privilege, and all clauses that force you to “consent” to resolve any controversies through arbitration instead of going to court are a huge warning sign.  You see, businesses prefer arbitration because it is less expensive, but mainly, because they get to “pick” the arbitrator. Unless you know several arbitrators that you trust, which is unlikely, they will always get to suggest the arbitrator. This individual will know them, it is very likely that he has presided over other arbitrations with the same party, and he will probably, be inclined to keep the client (your counterpart) happy for business reasons into the future.  Of course this last part cannot be demonstrated and I have no basis to claim that this is what happens during arbitration. The question is: Are you willing to take the chance? I personally would not do it. I would seek justice in the court system. Yes, it will take longer, but impartiality is more common in the courtroom, and if you win, the losing party may have to pay your attorney’s fees.

Seventh.  All terms and conditions must be in writing and they must be part of the written document. Even those terms and conditions contained in an appendix to the main contract should be referenced to and identified within the body of the contract by a number or a letter. Make sure that all attachments are signed by all parties, and dated with the same date as the main contract.  Most legislations abide by the parol evidence rule which clearly states that all agreements previous or contemporary to the signing of the contract must be in writing and appear as part of the physical agreement. Those that do not follow this rule will not be considered as part of the contract.  Be very careful with all those promises and concessions on the side.  They are not part of the contract unless they are in writing and in the document itself.

Eight.  Travel expenses must be included in the contract. The document should clearly state what expenses are reimbursable: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, Per Diem, photocopies, etc. It should also spell the fees payable to the interpreter on traveling days.  Remember, you provide a personal professional service. You cannot provide your services to two clients at the same time, so on the days that you travel to and from the assignment location, you are not working for any client. Unless you like to lose money, you should clearly negotiate and include in the contract your travel fee. There is a cost of doing business, but you should never lose money for accepting an assignment. Maybe one half of your regular fee should be a fair compensation for your travel days. Make sure that reimbursement of expenses for travel days are for total expenses. You can charge a lower fee, but you cannot fly, sleep or eat for less money just because it is a travel day.

Ninth.   The cancellation policy will always be in the contract. I would never sign an agreement that does not deal with this issue.  This policy needs to be negotiated taking into account the time between the cancellation and the cancelled event.  The fact that your client just found out of a cancellation that was decided two weeks ago is no excuse to lower your cancellation fee. It is your client’s obligation and duty of due diligence to be on top of everything the end client is considering, pondering, thinking, and doing.  A last-minute cancellation should require a full fee and reimbursement of all monies disbursed to that point.  Remember, it is not your fault that the client lost the event. That is his risk, not yours.

Tenth.  A good contract should cover payments in detail: amounts, timetables, and penalties in case of late payment.  Just as you had to show up to interpret on the set date, and not 30 days later, the client has the obligation to pay you on the day agreed to, and if he does not, then you must be compensated by virtue of a penalty clause that provides for compensation in case of any delays.  This is extremely important with smaller agencies who sometimes come to the interpreter crying poverty and asking for more time to pay you because their client has not paid them yet.  Although some of you may be tempted to give the small business owner a break, I am not. Do not lose sight of reality: This individual is your client. He is not your partner. Only partners share the risks of doing business. He is not sharing his pay with you. You should not share in the risk. He pays you or else… Where he gets the money from is not your problem.  You should also look for unacceptable provisions, usually inserted by larger agencies, about penalizing you by retaining part of your (already earned) fee.  They often include deductions based on what they consider your “performance” and deduct part of the money you already made. This is unacceptable and illegal.  Nobody should agree to give up part of his fee based on the assessment of others, much less when there are no safeguards in the contract such as notice of the intent to deduct part of the fee, and a mechanism to have a hearing before an impartial authority. How about letting a real judge deal with this issue? Agencies should never get that power from the contract- signing interpreter.

There are many more points to be included and reviewed by the parties, but I believe that at least these basic elements put me on a leveled field with the client as equal parties to a contract. I now ask you to please share any pointers or comments you may have on this very important professional issue.

This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand.  This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.

Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service.  When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population.  The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.

In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state.  These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.

When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job.  Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else.  This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate.  It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.

Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended.  They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:

Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator.  This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born.  The spirit of the law was ignored.

There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.

Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program.  This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.

Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.

Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators.  What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?

These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.

I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness.  I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator.  As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.

They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals.  All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

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