In tough times: Raise your fees!

May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Globalization has created a world market where we all compete, regardless of our location. Although this has raised professional fees for some colleagues in places with small economies, it has hurt most interpreters to a different degree, depending on whether they stuck to their local economy and clients, or they went to the international market and taking advantage of new technology acquired clients they would have never even considered before globalization. In a market like the United States, with very high speed internet, thousands of airports and flights to every corner of the planet, and a very reliable infrastructure, many of us felt no downturn in our business; in fact, we benefited from the change.

Unfortunately, and without getting into politics, some recent U.S. government decisions, and later changes to the way we did business and conducted our international relations, have created a state of uncertainty, and sometimes resentment, which have affected our profession.

Some of the conferences and international events we had interpreted for many years have been cancelled; others have been moved to other countries due to the uncertainty on the admission of visitors to the United States, as the organizers avoided the risk of investing on a project that a significant segment of attendees could not attend because of their country of origin. For the same reason, many international programs at universities, non-for-profit organizations, and government agencies have been considerably downsized or postponed. The situation for community interpreters is not any better, because less foreigners in the country means less litigation and less foreign investment, which impacts court and legal interpreters; and when foreigners visit the United States less frequently, they use hospital and medical services at a lower rate. This hurts healthcare interpreters.

Faced with this reality, it was time for me to decide how I was to continue to enjoy the same income level despite the new reality we are living; and turn this poison into medicine and even generate more income than before.

Many freelancers get scared when they find themselves in this position, and their first impulse is to lower their fees to keep the clients they have, and to advertise their services at a lower fee than before. They operate under the false idea that money is the main motivator in a client decision making process.

Fortunately, my professional experience has showed me that quality trumps price in everything a client values. That is why people spend more money on a better doctor, a safer airline, and a renowned university. All have cheaper alternatives, but with the things people value the most, there is always a thought that crosses their mind: “It is more expensive but, if not for this, what is money for?” At that point I decided to raise my professional fees.

With this in mind, I carefully studied my client portfolio and classified my clients according to their business value, considering the income they produce me, how frequently they require of my services, the affinity of the type of work I do for them to my personal interests, and the prestige a certain client brings to you in the professional world. I considered a separate category for difficult clients, but to my surprise these were very few, and I needed them for my plan to work.

I immediately realized there were clients on that list I wanted to keep no matter what, and there were others that I would lose regardless of my best efforts. They were in a category where my work was not one of those services that they value the most.

I approached my clients according to how badly I wanted to keep them. If I really wanted them, I would explain this change in person when possible, or by phone or Skype if they were abroad or if their schedule could not fit me within a reasonable period of time. Next, I decided to contact the rest by e-mail on a carefully worded communication that was clear, not too long, and that ended with an open invitation to discuss this raise in more depth in person or by phone if they wanted to do so.

It would be a conciliatory email. No ultimatums, or “take it, or leave it” type of notice. I was out to make friends, not to fight with my clients. I knew that I had two things working in my favor: They already knew my work, and I already knew how they like their interpreting.

For my strategy to succeed, I needed to present my proposal to somebody with the authority to decide. Talking to somebody down the totem pole would be a waste of my time. I decided that I would only talk or write to owners of small companies or agencies, and to senior management in larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies. (There is a video on this subject on my YouTube Channel).

I drafted a talking points memo to be used with my “A” list clients when I told them I was raising my fees. The points I would make to the client had nothing to do with globalization, current American politics, or the uncertain future interpreters were facing in the United States. I recapped the successes we had in the past, and I listed some of the professional things I do for them that are not always found in other interpreting services, but I was not heavy about it. I figured that if they had agreed to talk in person or by phone, it was because they already considered me an asset to their company. It was all about the quality of my professional service and the time and effort I would devote to the success of their conferences, projects, and other events.

I lost some clients, none from the “A” list, all those who stayed with me are now happily paying the new higher fees as they are now getting a more personalized service, and because of this new practice, I have acquired new clients, who were in part, referred by my old clients who stayed with me despite the raise. We now have a better working relationship because they know more about what I do, and their internal decision making process to continue working with me made them realize my true value for their organization.

The lesson learned, dear friends and colleagues, is to face adversity with a cool mind, refuse to give in to fears and peer pressure, and with confidence and self-assurance face the problem and win. It is always better to make more money when appreciated, and an added benefit is that instead of contributing to an even bigger depression of our market, you will do your part to pull it out of the shadows of uncertainty. I now invite you to share with the rest of us what you are doing to win as a professional interpreter in this new reality of globalization and political uncertainty.

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.

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