Letter to Interpreting Stakeholders

At the June 18, 2015 Health Care Interpreters Stakeholders Session hosted by the Oregon Health Authority, Heidi Schmaltz, OSTI member, read the following letter. The Stakeholders present requested that it be distributed to all the Stakeholders. We publish it on the OSTI blog with her permission.

The next Stakeholder session will be on September 24th from 10am to 12pm.

Heidi is a member of the OSTI Nominating Committee (nominations@ostiweb.org) and has been appointed to the Oregon Council on Healthcare Interpreters.

June 18th, 2015

Dear interpreter Stakeholders:

I would like to bring to your attention the current working conditions of interpreters in our state. While I have not conducted formal research on this issue, from my informal research and knowledge of the profession, the going rate for contracted interpreters (the majority of interpreters employed in the state), is $20 per hour. This rate has not changed in ten years, and I have heard of contracted interpreters currently working for $15 per hour or less. This rate has not increased with certification.

While this may sound like a living wage, given that $20 per hour in a 40 hour per week job paid as an employee comes out to around $40,000 per year, most interpreters are independent contractors. Since we drive from location to location, time which is usually uncompensated by agencies, and also must conduct terminology research and session prep, a normal work day consists of about four hours of paid work. Given the taxes required of the self-employed, our yearly pay comes out to around $18,000 per year or less. More could be earned in a minimum wage job. As independent contractors, according to the IRS, we are supposed to be able to negotiate our rate of pay, but the largest interpreting agencies in the state have set the rate low and are not willing to budge. I also feel that unfair advantage is being taken of members of our immigrant communities who are not familiar with laws regarding self-employment, and who may be willing to work for low rates given that discrimination in our state often bars them from entry into other professions. Many interpreters in the state are highly educated immigrants with advanced degrees from other countries. I won’t begin to talk about the lack of access to health insurance that medical interpreters have, given our pay. I will only say that before the Affordable Care Act, many healthcare interpreters in Oregon, working in places where we could be exposed to serious illnesses, had no access to medical care themselves. I also know of at least two medical interpreters who have been homeless while working in the field.

Not only is this situation harmful for the well-being of the interpreter, it does not make sense to spend limited funds for interpreter services so irresponsibly. The state of Washington was able to save money by setting a higher rate for interpreter pay, and limiting the percentage of that pay that agencies can keep. It probably meant that many interpreters did not have to be subsidized by the state as well, through food stamps and other government benefits, thus saving the state even more money. Those who scheduled the interpreters were making much more than the interpreters themselves, as is the case in Oregon. Though I hope we do not have to have the government or a union set our rates in Oregon, the interpreter pay situation must improve as it is key to providing quality services to patients. I would venture to say that most working medical interpreters in the state are not able to maintain the level of expertise necessary for the profession, because they need to work long hours in order to survive, and are unable to spend time on terminology research and preparation for each session. They have to rush from clinic to clinic, unable to accommodate unexpectedly longer encounters, and unable to provide the quality of services LEPs in Oregon deserve. This then becomes a civil rights issue and a potential civil rights violation since the quality of language services provided to LEPs becomes inadequate. Interpreters also need training, but many cannot afford training or to take time off of work to be trained. I myself have funded my training and certifications, and have “subsidized” my interpreting work the last few years by another job. It was the only way I could afford to work as an interpreter.

Please work towards a solution to this issue, so that interpreters can be compensated similar to other members of the medical team, and patients are not put at risk by unskilled interpreters. I feel this is the most pressing issue interpreter stakeholders face at this time.

Heidi Schmaltz