Interpreters: Employees or Contractors?


By Liz Carey

Sacramento, CA ( - While the standard for interpreters and translators remains as contract employment, some within the industry are calling for interpreters to be classified as employees. 

On May 31, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint against SOS International, or SOSi, a vendor for the department of justice, for misclassifying interpreters as contractors instead of employees, and cited unfair labor practices. 

The company provides interpreters for the Department of Justice in immigration hearings. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company said in a statement prior to the NLRB’s complaint that subcontracting out interpreters “is not a new practice.”

Jill Mead, compliance council with VocaLink in Dayton, Ohio, said she thinks the industry standard should change. In her mind, interpreters should be employees, instead of contractors. 

"We switched over in 2012,” Mead said. “In my mind, it was clear that if you want to ensure interpreters continue to stay certified, meet employee guidelines, or meet medical compliance standards, you have to classify them as employees. If you’re going to treat them like employees, they should be entitled to the benefits provided to employees like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.”

According to the LA Times, SOSi blamed the NLRB’s complaint on a “small handful of disgruntled interpreters who have filed protests in various venues” and said the protesters grumblings do not represent the majority of interpreters.

Jennette Surbaugh, an interpreter in Nashville, TN, said she works for three different organizations, as an employee and as a contractor. Her situation, she said, is not unusual.

“It’s really up to the individual,” she said. “It’s very expensive to get certified and to stay certified, but a lot of the work is done on an hourly basis. I sometimes interpret for the courts, and they may send me all over the area, but they make sure I get enough hours.”

For David Rumsey, president of the American Translators Association, classification of interpreters should be up to the individual.

“We don’t have any particular stance on whether or not interpreters should be contractors or employees,” Rumsey said. “We’re not in a position to tell our members what they should do. It’s up to the regulators to determine that. But what we do hear from our members is that it’s less about being a contractor or an employee and more about being treated fairly. If you’re going to treat an interpreter like an employee, then they should receive the same benefits employees receive.”

The SOSi case goes before an administrative law judge for the NLRB. The case could impact the status of hundreds of interpreters nationwide.

If the case does determine that interpreters should be classified as employees, it won’t likely be an easy transition, Mead said.

“There was some grumbling about paychecks after the transition,” she said of her company’s move to classify their interpreters as employees. “We had to say, ‘Yes, it appears that there is less in your paycheck, but you don’t have to pay your own taxes now, and you have workers’ compensation insurance now.’ That’s the trade off. Employees agree to work in ways that we approve of and to abide by our rules, and we agree to provide them with benefits they wouldn’t get as contractors. That’s the give and take of the system.”

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