Why are we fighting? Something I see too often is how each segment of our profession looks through a different lens and then makes assumptions (you do remember the saying about assumptions, right?) before obtaining the facts. Let’s take a look, shall we?
How do interpreters see agencies? Upfront, I will say in general not too favorably, but is this right? In some cases, it appears to be a justified view. In other cases, not. As with all professions, there are the good and the bad, so I don’t think we should classify all agencies as bad. There are some excellent ones out there, and those are the ones with whom you want to contract. Now, let me say that I am referring to ‘independent contract, freelance’ interpreters, not employees. As an employee, the agency is your boss, so basically you accept the terms of employment or you look elsewhere.
As an independent contractor, the agency is not your boss (I recommend reading an excellent article, “Interpreters: Your clients, and your clients’ clients” written by Tony Rosado where he covers this distinction). What you have is a business to a business relationship via a contract. Who, then, writes the deal? In most cases, the agency presents you, the independent, freelance interpreter, with an agreement that spells out the terms. But should they? My opinion (hey, I am not an attorney, so take this with a grain of salt and consult an actual attorney for legal advice) is this is wrong.
Now, backing up for a moment, I see nothing wrong with an agency setting specific criteria before contracting with an independent contractor. That is, do you have the skills, certifications, licenses, equipment, and so on to do the job? There is nothing wrong in this, and in fact, it is incumbent upon the agency to verify you can do the job for which you are contracting. In the case of an independent, freelance interpreter it is reasonable, though not wholly straightforward. Can you interpret accurately or not?
So, why the fighting? Would you like the simple answer? Okay, here it is. Bad agencies and interpreters. There are slippery slopes that both sides seem to continuously get themselves into, either through ignorance of the law or greed. You decide. If an agency attempts to control the fees (agency dictates versus negotiating), you may not be dealing with a reputable agency. If the agency instructs you how far ahead of an appointment you need to arrive (non-compensated), you may be dealing with an agency attempting to get free service out of the contract. We should all know how to professionally dress, however, if an agency spells it out for you, supplies you with a ‘company logo’ name badge, dictates that you must have the client sign a Verification Form on the company letterhead, you are being treated as an employee. You should stay away from agencies that have these practices. In fact, my personal opinion is that you should report them for using the ‘independent contractor’ status, but treating you as an employee/representative of their company.
Before I have interpreters thinking they are in the clear; we need to look at this side too. Are you accepting being treated as an employee, however, taking advantage of the independent-contractor benefits, such as being able to refuse a job, setting your hours? Do you have your terms & agreement contract that you require the agency to sign? What about insurance, do you carry it? Do you have the end-client sign a verification on your letterhead that services were provided? Do you send an invoice on your letterhead to the agency? I know, lots of questions, but these are questions you should be asking yourself.
The issues faced by agencies and those faced by interpreters has a lot to do with not adequately understanding the relationship. No, my fellow interpreter, you cannot just call up and say you are running late for an appointment due to traffic, or oops, sorry, I overbooked myself. You signed a contract that you would fulfill a service, and that service must be fulfilled somehow, someway, or it is you that broke the contract, not the agency. I won’t get into penalties here; however, I will say that both sides should have a penalty clause for breach of contract. Both sides should protect themselves, but that is just my opinion.
I want to re-iterate what Tony Rosado said in his article (referenced above). The relationship is between the agency and the interpreter, no one else. The person or entity where you are performing your services is not your client if you are doing so through an agency. Likewise, agencies, the interpreter is not your employee, so no, you cannot tell the interpreter to arrive at a specific time before the assignment and think it should not be included as part of the billable time, how to dress, what badge to wear and so on. In fact, dear agency, any control that you place on the interpreter –as an independent contractor– jeopardizes the contractual relationship. The proper agencies know this. The not-so-great agencies try to get away with this.
My suggestions? Independent-Freelance Interpreters: contract with proper agencies that adhere to the independent contractual relationship. Report to the U.S. Labor Board, I.R.S, and your local division of employment any agency that attempts to control ‘your’ business as an independent -freelance interpreter. Agencies: Do not put your agency at risk by violating the independent contractor status. A seasoned and genuinely independent contract interpreter will have their contract spelling out the terms, which you should negotiate based on your, the agency, criteria for meeting your client’s needs. The independent-freelance interpreter running his or her own business will have a fee schedule (negotiable in most cases) and carry their insurance.
Instead of fighting, agencies (the good ones) and independent-freelance interpreters (the good ones), should be working together to uplift our profession and weed out those determined to bring us down. Together, agency and independent-freelance interpreters can make a difference.
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.