October 12, 2015 § 9 Comments
We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic. I am referring to the freelance United States immigration court interpreters who, so far, have refused to accept the contractual conditions offered by a new federal government contractor that does not deal with them as language professionals but as unqualified laborers.
For many years, federal government contractors did their bidding and earned contracts from the immigration courts (EOIR) based on a widely accepted assumption that immigration court interpreters would take any fee offered to them, regardless of how low it was. This is how the bidding process worked and produced the abhorrent working conditions that LionBridge imposed on the interpreters, including extremely low fees, absurd cancellation policies, unprofessional treatment where the interpreters’ word had no credibility when their word conflicted with court staff, and even a penalty for those who wanted to be paid on time. For these reason many interpreters left, or never entered, the immigration court interpreting field. It was just unattractive to those who wanted to make a higher income and expected to be treated like professionals. Even now, the testimony of several attorneys reflects this reality when they comment that, many times, the quality of the interpretation in immigration court was lower than at those courts managed by the Administrative Offices of the Courts.
This is the environment that SOSi, the new bidder, encountered when they came into the picture. No wonder they pushed interpreter working conditions to a low never seen before. They assumed that this time would be like the others and interpreters would take the offer, no matter how unfair and insulting. They were wrong.
You see, friends and colleagues, a few things have changed since the last time the contract was awarded to LionBridge. By the time SOSi bids for the EOIR contract, there were more interpreters with a formal education than before; these colleagues had entered to the world of immigration court interpreting for many reasons: to gain some professional experience, to put their name out there, to have some income to begin to repay their student loans…
They worked as immigration court interpreters, but they were not there to stay; their time working over there would be a step towards a more fulfilling and better paid career. They did not plan to stay, but while they were there, they shared their ideas about professionalism and their personal dreams with the other interpreters who were already there. They inspired many of them to study to better themselves as interpreters, to go to a community college and study interpretation, to take a state or federal court interpreter certification exam, to become certified as healthcare interpreters, and so on. The crowd that SOSi encountered did not look much like the one its predecessor found some twenty years earlier. The result: They would not put up with worse working conditions than the horrendous ones they had suffered from the previous contractor, so they refused to sign the contracts, and the deadline for SOSi to take over interpreting services came and went without fulfilling their obligation because of their lack of the most precious and indispensable asset to provide interpreting services: the professional immigration court interpreter.
These colleagues took advantage of things that were not there the last time the contract was up for bids: social media, communication and peer support, information about the working conditions of other court interpreters working somewhere else, and the experience of our colleagues in the United Kingdom with another agency devoted to the degradation of the professional interpreter: Capita.
The refusal to sign these individual contracts happened all over the United States, the voice got louder, blogs spread the word and informed some not-so-well known facts about the contractor (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/disrespecting-the-immigration-interpreter/) virtual forums were created, professional associations intervened, the media wrote about this issue in English (http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidnoriega/immigration-courts-could-lose-a-third-of-their-interpreters#.sopPZ5w26) in Spanish (http://www.eldiariony.com/2015/10/07/disputa-laboral-de-interpretes-amenaza-con-agravar-demoras-en-tribunales-de-inmigracion/) and discussed it on the radio (http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2015/10/09/44770/backlog-at-immigration-courts-could-grow-with-a-pa/)
The contractor, probably frustrated by this “unexpected occurrence”, apparently decided to get help from local language services agencies all over the country to see if, by buffering this link between them and the professional immigration court interpreter, some colleagues would agree to sign the individual contracts, and, unless there is some legal figure no interpreter is aware of, as a result of their signature, they would become contractors of a sub-contractor (the local agency), putting them one more step away from the entity that won the contract: SOSi. In fact, I have heard from several interpreters in different cities who have contacted me with their concerns about the contents of this contract that has been offered to them.
Although the following is in no way legal advice, nor is intended in the slightest to be such a thing, I have decided to give my opinion about some of the portions of the contract as they were presented to me by my colleagues. Remember, this is just my opinion, based on my many years of professional experience as a professional interpreter, and my years in law school. Your opinion may be different and I will not dispute such a thing. Let’s see:
The most common concern about our colleagues can be summarized by this colleague’s observations: ‹In general, I have my doubts that my previously negotiated half/day and full/day rates would really be respected, in light of SOSi’s option to pay these “…unless EOIR determines that using a different CLIN would result in less cost to the government.” What does this mean in plain English?
There is a legal principle in civil law (and contracts are civil law) called the parol evidence rule. This principle states that all negotiations between the parties to a contract that took place before or simultaneously to the signing of a contract, that are not clearly spelled out on the document, are non-existent and therefore, non-binding and unenforceable. This means that all “negotiated rates” that are not in writing are irrelevant. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parol_evidence_rule) (http://thelawdictionary.org/parol-evidence-rule/)
A follow up question to the last comment was this one: “what is a CLIN?”
Although I do not know for sure, I believe that “CLIN” in this context refers to “Contract Line Item Number” This would mean that if EOIR finds a legal way to pay less than the “previously negotiated rate” or If other interpreters are willing to work for less, the pay could be impacted.
Some interpreters are concerned about the travel expenses when they are asked to go out of town to interpret a hearing. Apparently, the section of this contract that addresses this issue does not mention the English<>Spanish interpreters. As far as travel expenses, keeping in mind that English<>Spanish interpreters cover the immense majority of the immigration cases, my feeling is that they could be leaving the English<>Spanish interpreters out of the equation because they feel they can meet these needs with Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and with local folks if needed.
It is also worrisome that said contract seems to emphasize “telephonic interpreting”, indicating that this service will be paid at an hourly fee. As we all know, like all professional services providers, interpreters sell their time. Getting paid for the time interpreted based on an hourly pay would result in a detrimental situation for the interpreter, because nobody is paying for the time it takes to this professional services provider to get ready to do the rendition (travel to the courthouse or detention center, setting aside big chunks of time to do the assignment, etc.)
According to some colleagues, SOSi appears very firm on its insistence that interpreters compete for offered work assignments on a generally accessible “available assignments” website. In other words, interpreters would no longer be contacted individually, as with Lionbridge, to accept or reject offered assignments. Apparently, SOSi’s recruiters have explained the validity of this policy as a way to avoid having to hire assignment coordinators.
In my opinion, Immigration court interpreters must keep in mind that SOSi’s contractor history and system is based on bidding subcontractors. That is how most Department of Defense contracts work (and remember, they are primarily a defense contractor) so I don’t see them changing strategy. All interpreters could be considered subcontractors bidding for a job every time there is a need for an interpreter.
This is the most critical hour for our immigration court colleagues because this is when experienced agencies and contractors put in practice their well-rehearsed tactics. Some interpreters may decide to sign a contract even though the “promised, negotiated fee” is different from what the contract states, or it is hidden in an appendix or table. Immigration court interpreters will only achieve the dignified treatment they deserve, and has been denied for so many years, if they continue to speak with one voice, and it will get more difficult unless those with more experience and formal academic education step in and help their colleagues. We must remember that fear can derail any project, and the immigration court interpreters are not a homogeneous group. Unlike conference interpreters, many of them interpret at a questionable quality level, others may think, deeply inside, that the ridiculous fees offered by the contractor are not so bad, some may live from paycheck to paycheck, and may decide to sign the draconian contract; and some of them may not really be freelancers, but employees with no steady job.
The truth is, that to get to a professional fee, the interpreters have to be willing to stay away from the immigration courts for as long as it takes, and during that time, if they are truly freelance interpreters, they will find their income doing so many other interpreting assignments. If they are really independent professionals, they will have to come to terms with the realization that well-paid immigration court interpreting will not be an everyday thing; it will be one of many other interpreting assignments that the true freelancer will have to cover. EOIR is a client. It is not an employer.
The contractor, SOSi, LionBridge, or any other has a responsibility to their shareholders, and that is fine. The federal government has budgetary limitations, and that is fine. It is because of these undisputed facts that the independent immigration court interpreter needs to understand that to get the financial resources to cover his professional fee, the service will have to be more efficient. Less hours of work at the EOIR, but better pay. That is how the freelancing world works, and all interpreters will need to understand it; otherwise, the lesson learned will not be the one this entry begins with, but instead, the lesson will be that once again, because of the interpreters’ lack of determination and unity, things will stay the same. I ask my dear friends and colleagues not to waste this unique opportunity in their careers.
Although these lines merely contain my personal opinion, and in no way this pretends to be any legal advice for anybody, if I were facing the situation these immigration court interpreters in the United States have in front of them, I would hold on to signing anything until it is clear who stays and who does not. If SOSi stays, to become attractive to the interpreter community, they will probably make some changes to their contractual policy towards the interpreters. If there is a new different language services agency, I would wait to see what they have to say first. Also, for my peace of mind and for the safety of my professional future, I would never sign a contract after talking to the HR people. I would ask for the legal department because I would need to understand, and know, the contractual terms, and the likelihood that they will be honored by the language service provider. I now invite you to share your opinion with the rest of us, and for the benefit of as many interpreters as possible.
Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.
July 28, 2014 § 15 Comments
I consider myself very lucky because my job takes me all over the world; this allows me to see many of my friends and colleagues as I visit their towns and countries, and also gives me the opportunity to keep up with the local interpreting and translation issues that are impacting that particular area. It gives me great joy to hear about the personal and professional accomplishments of so many talented friends; and unfortunately, I also get to see the sadness, anger and frustration of so many who are working under conditions that no professional should suffer or tolerate. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to these horror stories where the main characters are permeated by mediocrity, ignorance and lack of ambition. It was after one of these episodes, not long ago, that I decided to write about this topic in order to identify the problems and propose some solutions that have worked for me and for other colleagues in the past. This topic is broad and will require of several posts. I will address separately on three different posts the situation of court interpreters, community interpreters, including health care interpreters, and conference interpreters.
First I will talk about the court interpreters because they are a large part of the interpreting community in the United States (only second to military interpreters) and they are a growing segment of the profession in many countries around the world. When I think of many of the freelance court interpreters I know, one thing that puzzles me is: how can they be happy and fulfilled working under such conditions? In certain administrative courts they are paid very little money, sometimes they do not get Per Diem when traveling to another location, and on top of that, they are not treated like professionals. They are required to get paperwork stamped and signed by others, sending the message that because they are not trustworthy, somebody else needs to watch what they do; And by the way, if they want to get paid on time they have to be willing to accept a smaller paycheck (there is a pay cut policy in exchange for faster pay). Of course this is an extreme case, and I would have called it the worst if this article had been written before the United Kingdom court interpreter fiasco that insulted capable professional interpreters in their professionalism and in their pockets. Of course you all know what happened over there and we are all familiar with the ever-bigger problems in the British justice system. Enough for now, but I will return to the United Kingdom court interpreter saga later on this post.
If you think that things get better for those interpreters who freelance in the state-level court system of the United States because these are not administrative courts, you have not worked there for at least a decade. At this level, in most states, interpreters make a little more money than those working the immigration court system, but they are still getting a laughable fee for their professional services. This low pay does not feel any better when you combine it with rules and policies designed for laborers and not for a professional service provider. I am talking about agency-controlled state court markets, incomprehensible policies that are keeping good interpreters from making a decent income in civil cases, the “annual payment limit” contained in some states’ independent interpreter contracts, the “even distribution” of work policy of other states where good and mediocre interpreters basically get the same amount of work from the state as long as they are state-certified, or the backwards legislation that gives certification and oversight of court interpreters to the state judiciary in a state where this was not the case, and now will pull interpreters down to the same level of the other states where the same party that hires certifies. A move unheard in other professions like lawyers and physicians, but even celebrated by many interpreters in this state. Add to this landscape all the endless and ever-changing micro-management requirements by local courthouses, many other rules that I will just skip for the sake of brevity; and finally, throw in there the agencies that are run by people with no formal education, experience, or practical knowledge of interpreting (as the ones who procure interpreting services for most administrative courts) and pay their interpreters even less money, and you will have the big picture; the same picture I see every time I hear a new story, learn of a new travesty, or witness a horrendous performance.
Dear friends and colleagues, I cannot help it, but it is at about this time that I always wonder why my friend or colleague is still working as a court interpreter under those circumstances! The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Simple because as a freelancer all it takes is a moment of courage when the interpreter decides: Enough! No more. Complex because not everybody is willing or capable of making this decision. Different people, different priorities, different ideas, different set of values, and different goals in life. Although I have belonged to the former group all my life, I understand those who belong in the latter. The thing I cannot understand is why they do not take action and change things for themselves, and maybe for their profession at the local level.
It is possible that many people living under the circumstances described above will not be able, for different reasons, to move on to another type of interpreting assignments, but they can always pick their clients wisely. Let me explain:
One thing I have never understood is why on earth so many of my freelancer colleagues see themselves as court employees. I have heard hundreds of times how they introduce themselves as interpreters for the courts; I have heard them refer to court administrators, court clerks, judges, and staff interpreters as their “boss”! Obviously this immediately tells me that if they see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.
Once the interpreter comes to terms with this issue, and understands that she does not work for anyone but herself, she can focus on picking her clients. She will soon realize that mediocre interpreting agencies, state judiciaries, and even the federal court system are nothing but clients, and clients that pay very little (some of them rarely on time) in exchange for what they expect from the interpreter. They pay low fees for the interpreting service, but many of them want you to do so many other things for the same token fee: these interpreters must prepare endless paperwork, learn (sometimes absurd) court or agency policies that are only applicable to that particular courthouse, translate documents in between hearings, attend (often self-serving) unpaid meetings scheduled by the agency or court administration; and many times they demand, without saying it, exclusivity and they “punish” an interpreter who cancels the assignment for a better paying professional opportunity. Once the interpreter sees them as another client, she will realize that, because of their practices and philosophy, they are not at the top of her client wish list, and she will understand the need to find better clients.
Now the question is: If all interpreting agencies that control the administrative courts, and all state-level court systems are not to be considered as top clients, what else is there? The answer is: The good clients!
All interpreters who want to make a decent living in the legal field need to provide their services to the private bar. It is true that in the United States the states are now observing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in many cases the states are keeping independent interpreters from working any civil cases unless paid through the courts; but even under these circumstances, there is plenty to do. First, those of you who live in states where independent freelancers coexist with state contractors, and are allowed to provide their services in civil court to those who turn down the court-appointed interpreter and prefer to hire their own, you should enter this field full-blast. The federal system does not provide court appointed interpreters in civil cases, and for those who are federally certified this is another option, in fact, it is a much better option than working criminal cases for the federal court system because the pay is much better.
The main option available to all of those who have a valid certification at some level (state or federal. Private language agency certifications are not considered valid) is to become a legal or “out-of-court” interpreter instead of a court interpreter. Legal interpreters provide their professional services to Law Firms and attorneys for depositions, office interviews, witness preparation, jail visits, expert opinions, expert testimony, transcription and translation services, and even in court at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table. Interpreters negotiate their fee with these attorneys; there are no pre-set limits, no endless meetings, and for the most part, the cases are interesting: there is more variety in civil court; and the cases that you should go after involve enormous amounts of money in damages. These are the type of clients I try to have, and I spoil them, pamper them, and protect them with the best service you can find anywhere. The point is, my court interpreter friends and colleagues, if you don’t want to move to a bigger city, if you don’t want to travel, or to learn a new field, the next time you get angry because of an absurd new rule, because you are not getting paid on time, or because you got tired of being treated like a laborer instead of a professional, stop working for the system, get out there and look for the big clients: the large law firms, the corporate legal departments, and talk to them; sell them your services, and start enjoying your career once again. Who knows? If enough good interpreters leave the system, the system will have to hire mediocre individuals, and sooner or later the government will have to sit down with you and talk fees and other work conditions. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom where a group of courageous, determined, and brave interpreters walked out and never went back. They made history, inspired us all, and showed us that although difficult at the beginning, there is life after the courthouse. I invite you to share with us your opinions and comments, and I ask you to avoid name-calling, specific cases, and arguments defending agencies or the court interpreter wages.
True story: Authorities of a state that does not offer court interpreter certification wanted proof that the interpreter was certified by the state.
August 22, 2012 § 7 Comments
This is a true story. It just happened to me a few months ago. One day I was interpreting at the Federal District Courthouse in Chicago when a private attorney approached me and asked me if I would go to the county jail with him to see a client. Although I had never been to Cook County jail, I said yes as this attorney works in Federal Court all the time. We set a date and time for the visit, he gave me the address to the jail, I googled the directions, and off I went to my assignment. After this public transportation city interpreter looked for a place to park for quite some time and finally found one, I met the attorney outside the facility. We entered the jail just to find out that our client was housed in another division that was about four city-blocks away. We took advantage of the long walk to catch up on the case, and to get work for the shoe-shine man as our shoes got really dirty from walking on these dirt roads.
We finally arrived at the right building, we were frisked, and then we were told that I could not enter the meeting room because I had not been authorized by the court to be there. The custody officers told the attorney (my client) that unless we had a letter from the judge or from the Department of Corrections Legal Department authorizing my presence in the jail, we could not do the interview. Of course, by now the defendant had been brought downstairs and she was witnessing everything from the other side of the glass, not knowing what the delay was for. The jail authorities explained to us that only certified interpreters were allowed inside the facility. The attorney told them that I was certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts, but their response was that they needed to see proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois. I explained to them that Illinois is one of the few states that do not have a certification program; I mentioned how the Illinois State Courts work with non-certified interpreters every day, and how I worked within the federal court system where they have a certification policy in place. I even explained to them that I am certified by two states that are members of the consortium of states that offer court interpreter certification. It did not matter at all. They needed proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois.
Once we realized that we were in an impossible situation, and after the officers did not allowed us to use the phone to call the jail legal department to explain our case, we turned around and left. Of course, I still got paid by the attorney. Of course, the attorney billed the client for the time he spent there; but as I was leaving the facility I could not keep myself from laughing. At the end of the day the jail officers were right, at least partially, there should only be certified interpreters working that jail. The problem is that the State does not have a certification program, and nobody has told these officers that to ask for an Illinois Court Interpreter Certification is as useless as to ask for the interpreter’s death certificate before he can enter the jail. I decided to post this experience in the blog because it seems so unreal. I would love to read your comments about this very unique experience.