Monday, February 7, 2011

Armchair Debate to Highlight Key Issues in the Interpreting Workplace

If you are an interpreter reading this blog, chances are you doing so from your home office. The Interpreting Marketplace Study prepared by Common Sense Advisory for last year's 1st North American Summit on Interpreting found that approximately three quarters of interpreters worked as freelancers, and furthermore, that few of us made our livings solely as interpreters. Rather, we supplement our income as translators, trainers and with other jobs. And while we may be well aware of the challenges and rewards inherent to being our own boss, few of us are aware of the major tug-of-war underway in our profession between interpreting services companies as to whether that freelance model will stand, or whether in the near future more of us will become company employees.

The upcoming 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting is putting this issue front stage and center with the first ever Independent Contractor v. Employee Workplace Model Armchair Debate. Industry leaders Bill Graeper of Certified Languages International and Louis Provenzano of Language Line Services will face off for the event, moderated by Stephanie van Reigersberg, a veteran diplomatic interpreter with a distinguished career in government service. 

You may ask yourself, so what? What does this really have to do with me? The bottom line, after all, is making a living. But that is precisely why this issue is of such consequence to everyone in our field. Whether language service providers hire interpreters as independent contractors or employ them directly has everything to do with interpreter remuneration, benefits, training opportunities and maintaining high quality service provision. 

At the heart of this issue is pending federal legislation addressing current laws governing whether workers are classified as employees or as independent contractors. Specifically, the legislation focuses on the “misclassification” of employees as independent contractors. The just-released federal budget for fiscal year 2011 includes "a proposal to be jointly administered by the Departments of Labor and the Treasury to eliminate legal incentives for employers to misclassify their employees. Funds are appropriated to enhance the ability of both agencies to penalize employers that misclassify employees as independent contractors, and restores protections to employees who have been denied them due to the misclassification. According to the budget, this proposal will increase Treasury receipts by more than $7 billion over 10 years. The budget allocates an additional $25 million to hire 100 new enforcement personnel to target worker misclassification and establish competitive grants to encourage states to address this issue." See

At stake here is the very employment model that runs our profession. Few language service providers could realistically afford to hire the independent contractor interpreters they rely on for providing services across dozens and sometimes hundreds of languages as employees. Demand is unpredictable and many languages do not provide enough work to keep interpreters employed at full-time or even half-time jobs, nor could companies contract for onsite services in rural areas using employees. To address this market reality, the majority of providers have opted for a freelance model. No doubt, there are language companies that abuse that model, using it more for keeping wages low and their federal employee obligations to a minimum than to offer quality, professional services to their clients. Freelancers have far fewer job protections and built-in job benefits than employees.

But on the flip side are many companies who work closely with their freelancers to ensure quality and which are hamstrung by the strict limitations placed on them by the federal employee legislation. For example, many companies would like to provide ongoing training and educational opportunities, but cannot do so because to offer such training would reclassify the freelancer into an employee--one due benefits, social security deductions and the like. This limitation directly affects the ability of the company and the interpreter to ensure the advanced training that both parties need interpreters to have to ensure quality and consistency of training across multiple languages and settings.

Which side is on the right here? Should the thousands of interpreters currently working as independent contractors be reclassified as employees and thereby gain access to increased benefits, wages and employer-provided training? Or would that reclassification in actuality mean the loss not only of millions of dollars of work contracts and fewer languages served, but a sharp decrease in the numbers of companies hiring on-site interpreters and the consolidation of the field into a few, large corporate entities?

At InterpretAmerica, we feel this issue is so important that we asked the two strongest advocates on either side of the issue to come debate the pros and cons for our attendees. Come listen to what is sure to be a spirited debate and then decide for yourself what our field needs. Only by educating ourselves on the broader marketplace can interpreters gain the awareness needed to participate in the shaping of their work settings. Check out the full conference offerings and come join us at the 2nd North American Summit on Interpreting on June 17 and 18, 2011 in Washington, DC.

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