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For Interpreting, a Decade of Building Connections Reaps Results

California Linguists: Scroll to the end of this blog for action steps. Our pressure is working. We need to keep it up through February 24! Take action now!

Anyone who reads this blog knows that Califorinia's AB5 law is currently dominating our public work. This law applies a one-size-fits-all definition of "employee" for independent contractors working in professions which did not achieve an exemption before the bill was made law. The results have been immediate and catastrophic, as individual linguists see contracts dry up and confusion reigns.

While we've had our heads down in California, something interesting is happening around the country. The interpreting profession is showing a unity and depth of organizational strength we have not seen before. That is good news, regardless of how efforts to fix AB5 turn out.

Building a national professional identity

One of the primary reasons we created InterpretAmerica a decade ago was to help the interpreting profession get to know itself. At that time, we were separated into individual silos to such a degree that many heads of professional organizations were unaware of each others' existence. The single goal of our first Summit in 2010 was simply to introduce ourselves to each other. Over the years, many others have taken up the same goal and worked hard to build connections in our field. Our hard work is paying off.

10 years later, AB5 has exploded like a bomb in our midst, shattering a fragile and by-no-means-perfect status quo. Our profession had been trying to address the independent contractor/employee/misclassification topic in fits and starts. Now a huge decision has been made for us, whether we want it or not. Far from deepening divisions in our field, overall it is revealing how much more unified we are now than we were a decade ago.

Over the course of the last few months, most major national professional and advocacy organizations have come out strongly in favor of preserving the ability of interpreters and other language professionals to work as independent contractors if they so choose.

(A link to each of these statements is provided at the end of this blog. )

We have had a few other moments when our profession has reacted nationally to an urgent issue, including the controversy over interpreters pulled into torture sessions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the plight of many of those same interpreters left behind after coalition forces pulled out and when certified Spanish interpreter for the federal courts Erik Camayd-Freixas spoke out in defense of migrants in the infamous meatpacking case.

Now, our profession is standing up from a place of strength to advocate for its most precious and indispensable resource: individual practitioners. Without the interpreters, translators, localizers and many other language professionals who help facilitate communication between hundreds of languages, language access cannot be had in hospitals, schools or social services, justice cannot be reached and business cannot get done.

Our $54 billion industry is built on the skills each individual professional brings to the table. AB5 puts a stranglehold on our ability to work. At the time of our greatest need, it is gratifying to see our major professional organizations step up to protect us.

This support does not negate the needs of those language professionals who do need protection from the predatory practices of some agencies. There are existing legal remedies that can be leveraged and interpreters who work in certain areas such as court interpreting can, and have, unionized, to achieve better working conditions.

AB5 threatens our professional identity

AB5 effectively wipes out those other remedies by forcing everyone to become an employee of multiple agencies. Far from providing us with the promised increased wages and benefits, the opposite is much more likely. Esther Hermida summed up in stark detail what is actually happening in a recent article published by the ATA's Spanish Language Division:

I work for about 11 different agencies. Not a single one will offer free health insurance as they are only mandated to offer this to employees who work over 28 hours a week; and if they have more than 50 employees. Most of our LSCs [language service companies] are small businesses and don’t meet the threshold. I cannot claim unemployment benefits because if one company “fires” me, I’ll have to prove that I’ve been unemployed for two weeks before I can submit a claim. If it was granted, the benefits are capped to a maximum of $450 a week; which is no real benefit to us as professionals. Also, I will continue working for the other 10 LSCs. If, as a translator, I suffer from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I’ll have to sue each of my employers to determine who is liable and for what percentage.

It may sound good on paper that we are all now going to be employees with a stable salary and benefits. As Esther so articulately points out, reality paints a far different, and more damaging, picture.

AB5 may be limited to California for now, but not for long. A Federal version of this bill passed the House of Representatives last week. Called the "Pro Act," this legislation has many similar elements to AB5. It seeks to strengthen unions, and one of the ways it does so is to strengthen the reclassification of independent contractors as employees. While this bill is unlikely to make it through the US Senate to be signed into law, it is a harbinger of the increasing pressure being put on knowledge workers around the country.

Our profession still has a long way to go to reach the level of maturity enjoyed by doctors, lawyers and others who already received an exemption from AB5. However, the law has unexpectedly given us a silver lining: It has revealed the strength of our connections and loyalties to each other, something that did not exist just a few years ago. We were caught asleep at the wheel for AB5, but that is unlikely to happen again as we continue to find coherent ways to protect all interpreters and translators, regardless of our employment status.


For those based in California, February 24 is the deadline for the introduction of any kind of "fix-it" legislation aimed at providing exemptions for knowledge-based freelance professions such as ours. The best thing that you, as individuals, can do is to keep the pressure up on your local lawmakers.

Through our work with CoPTIC (Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California), we can report that several lawmakers have indicated a desire to author workable legislation that advances our goal of protecting all practicing linguists and the people we serve. It’s clear that our strategy, leading hundreds of professionals to contact their lawmakers, is working.

So keep calling, writing and checking in with your representatives. Make sure they know the issue continues to be urgent and requires a proactive response before the February 24th deadline.

It just takes a few moments of time to help tip the scales! Click here and then follow the "find by address" link to identify your Assemblymember and Senator. Look up their local and Sacramento office phone numbers and call them both.

The message is simple: Lawmakers need to fix AB5 to protect language professionals (and many other traditionally freelance professions) from the unintended consequences of this law. Ask for new legislation that provides a full exemption for translators and interpreters.

CoPTIC, the Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California, has provided easy-to-use materials to guide you through the most effective ways to communicate with your lawmakers.


Click on the links below to see the professional organization statements on AB5:


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