Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.

This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future.  Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.

The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best.  If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe.  They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.

The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.

If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either.  As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.

I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.

Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.

But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).

Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you.  It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.

As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.

For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.

Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.

It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.

I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.

End of the year message to all: Some justice to the profession.

December 29, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is my last post of the year and for that reason I considered several topics to discuss on this entry. I thought of writing a review of the year from the perspective of our profession, I pondered the idea of sharing with you the professional conferences I will attend in 2016, I weighed the usefulness of presenting an ethical issue for discussion, and I was having a very difficult time deciding what to write about.  Fortunately for me, it all changed when a couple of days ago I learned that one of the translation/interpretation agencies that treats our colleagues, and for that matter our profession, like garbage was slammed by the United States Federal Government for violating the labor laws of the U.S.

Once I read the news, I knew I had to write about this topic that brewed throughout the year and finally started to show concrete results during the last quarter of 2015: How multinational agencies are destroying the profession by bastardizing it as an “industry”, selling a mediocre service to both, the careless and the good-faith naïve clients, and how they denigrate interpreters and translators by offering miserable fees and unconscionable working conditions.  Now we know that they also disrespect the rule of law.

A Wage and Hour Division investigation found that Monterey, California-based Language Line, LLC failed to calculate properly overtime payments due to employees working beyond forty hours a week, a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, so the Division ordered this agency to pay more than $500,000.00 U.S. Dollars in back wages and damages to 635 victims. On a separate investigation, the Division looked into the company to determine whether Language Line, LLC paid its translators and interpreters required prevailing wages and benefits when working as professional service providers on federal contracts covered by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act. When the division determined that Language Line did not comply with the law, the U.S. Government directed the language services agency to review its United States Government federal contracts to see if they were in compliance with the prevailing wage and fringe benefits law applicable to these contracts. The review showed that Language Line LLC had violated the law, and as a result, 2,428 interpreters and translators throughout the United States will receive nearly $970,000.00 United States Dollars in back wages and benefits. The law requires that businesses pay at the minimum these wages and benefits, it also prohibits employers, like Language Line, LLC, from retaliating against interpreters and translators for exercising their rights, and it requires that all businesses maintain accurate records of wages, hours, and working conditions.  The total amount that Language Line, LLC underpaid its interpreters throughout the United States was $1.47 million U.S. Dollars according to the United States Department of Labor.  There was a little justice in this case. [http://globalnation.inquirer.net/134051/translation-firm-must-pay-1-47m-to-2400-underpaid-workers]

On December 17 we all learned that the California Department of Insurance arrested nine people involved in a complex scheme allegedly targeting more than 230 workers’ compensation insurers and self-insured employers. Among these selected group or people, we found siblings Francisco Javier Gómez Jr., and Angela Rehmann, owners of G&G Interpreting Services, an agency that allegedly fraudulently billed more than $24.6 million United States Dollars for interpreting services for injured workers with Hispanic surnames.  G&G Interpreting Services reportedly had a substantial operation providing Spanish language interpreting services across the Los Angeles California basin and southern California for injured workers receiving healthcare services through the workers’ compensation system. California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a statement about this agency’s alleged crimes: “…When those providing services to injured workers line their pockets by ripping-off workers’ compensation insurers through fraudulent overbilling practices, and charging for services that never occurred, we all end up paying…” [http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/west/2015/12/17/392443.htm]

Dear friends and colleagues, we can see these two examples just from this month, as an unequivocal sign that we have to be extremely careful as to who we work with, and concretely, whose contracts we are going to be associated with. Remember, your signature could appear on a dotted line next to the crook’s signature.  Of course I am not saying that all interpreting and translating agencies are bad or practice criminal activities against their clients or professional service providers; as you know, for legal reasons I even need to remind you that the G&G Interpreting Services case has not been decided in court yet, but what I can tell you is that once again we can confirm that timeless saying: “If it quacks like a duck… it probably is (a duck)”.  We close the year on this high note for the profession from our point of view, but with a terrible message to the general public that does not know the difference between a fraudulent interpreting agency, a bottom-feeder low paying agency, and a good professional interpreter like you.

We need to be careful and very selective on what we sign. We must be courageous and firm when setting our professional fees and working conditions, especially when dealing with those multinational conglomerates who despise our profession to the point of calling it an “industry” instead of a profession. We need to know that as long as we abide by the legal system, the law is on our side, not theirs. I truly invite you to share this entry, the original articles on these two horrendous examples of everything that is ugly in our professional environment, or both, with your clients as an excellent means and opportunity to educate them on the benefits (professional, ethical, quality of service and even financial) of hiring you instead of a bad interpreting and translation services agency.  This is public record and we can use this information, we can call these perpetrator and alleged perpetrators respectively by their names, and we should. Do not lie or embellish the facts, they are very powerful as they really happened. The end-client needs to know the truth and we should seize this opportunity.

This is a wake-up call to many interpreters and translators, and a validation to what many of us have been saying for years.  It is time to shun the conferences where they invite these individuals to be presenters, panelists, and even keynote speakers, it is time to reconsider our membership in professional associations that allow these type of entities to be members even though they are not interpreters, translators, or even human beings. It is time to reward conferences and professional associations that do not allow them into the conference hall or into the ranks of the organization.

Finally, I did not want to end 2015 without tipping my hat to the many colleagues who fought so hard to better the profession throughout the year and save it from the claws of those who want to shed the professional part of our work and turn it into an “industry”.  Thank you to those who stood up against SOSi and especially to those who are still holding back and not giving up o giving in. Thank you to those colleagues who are fighting for fair professional conditions at the immigration hearings in the United Kingdom. Thank you to our colleagues who are still fighting against the abuses within the Workers’ Compensation system in California. Thank you to those who stood firm when apparently disrespected by a judge who was appointed Chair of the Language Access Advisory Committee in New Mexico. A special thanks to our always-remembered colleagues in the United Kingdom who continue to fight against Capita: You are an inspiration to all of us. Thank you to each and every one of you who turn down assignments every day because of the insulting low fees, outrageous working conditions, or lack of professionalism of the agencies. It is because of you that we are still fighting against the commoditization of the profession, against the exploitation by those who offer VRI services and want to pay peanuts, against incompetent bureaucrats in government offices worldwide, and against the 20-year old ignorant who works for the agency for a fast-food type of wage and calls you to tell you how to do your professional work as an interpreter or translator. To all of you, the good, professional interpreters and translators: have a very happy new year!

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