Translators, interpreters rally for employment status in Department of Labor hearing

Dozens of independent contractors, including translators and interpreters, turned out today for a U.S. Department of Labor Zoom forum over proposed rule changes to employment regulations. 

While nothing was decided at the hearing, it gave freelance workers the opportunity to share their perspective on independent work and express their worries about disruption from rule changes.

The proposed rule changes come on the heels of reported employee misclassification, resulting in workplace abuses like denial of benefits, overtime pay, and other protections. However, professional associations like the American Translators Association (ATA) fear that rule changes could misclassify workers who stay independent by choice — many language professionals included. 

“Forcing those of us who wish to be independent contractors to be employees would disrupt vital language-access services, which are protected under federal law,” the ATA wrote in a call to action. 

A specific point of contention is the proposed adoption of the ABC test for employee classification. Under the test’s terms, an employer must consider a worker an employee unless it can satisfy three conditions. One: The worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact. Two: The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business. And three: The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

Independent workers happy with their professional status worry that such a regulation would result in their misclassification as a W2 employee, endangering the nature of their work. 

“Interpreters really need to have room to continue to have our work recognized,” said Susan Posey, Spanish interpreter. “We are highly recognized, highly skilled professionals, and the only way I can make myself available to all my clients is to craft my own hours.”

Ben Karl, an ATA-certified translator and ATA committee chair, said that the adoption of the ABC test in California wreaked havoc among his colleagues. He argued that it likewise disrupted the ability for clients with limited English proficiency to engage with the institutions that define their lives, be it the court system, healthcare providers, or government bodies. 

“It decimated the businesses of many of our members [in California], who were forced to move out of state,” he said. 

Other language workers pointed out the lack of traditional W2 jobs in their profession. According to the ATA, it’s an employment structure that reaches back to the 1940s and encompasses 75% of language professionals. 

“In my profession, employee jobs have been historically few and far between due to the nature of the work,” said court interpreter Katerina Borghi. “Moreover, they often don’t keep up with the cost of living.” 

Those in favor of introducing new contractor rules largely worked or represented workers of rideshare services. Companies like Uber and Lyft have long been criticized for exploiting contractor laws to avoid covering benefits and worker protections, oftentimes resulting in their drivers making less than minimum wage. 

On the whole, commenters generally called for a solution that protected all types of workers — both those happy with their employment status and those more vulnerable to worker exploitation.   

“Let’s stake out that common ground,” said Hollie Heikkinen, an advocate for independent workers. “We can all agree that all workers deserve an environment where their voices are sought out and heard.” 

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Cameron Rasmusson
Cameron Rasmusson is a writer and journalist. His first job out of the University of Montana School of Journalism took him to Sandpoint, Idaho as a staff writer for the Bonner County Daily Bee. Since 2010 he's honed his skills as a writer and reporter, joining the MultiLingual staff as Editor-in-Chief in 2021.

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