First, some things to get out of the way:

  1. I don’t think that universities, VRS companies, or groups that advocate for increased use of interpreters intended to cause this commoditization.
  2. I don’t believe that the FCC is intending to diminish the quality of communication access when they reduce billable rates.
  3. Commoditization is not the same thing as the risk of automation. That will be a future post.

To get the proper context of this post, please read the prequel, Part 1 of the State of Interpreting series.

As external pressures continue to push down the billable rates by the Federal Communications Commission for VRS providers, the demand for video interpreters to have maximum uptime increases (after all, utilization is where the billable time comes from). As Video Remote Interpreting capitalizes on the need for 24/7 services, even in rural areas, particularly for a medical situation, many agencies are blending VRI into their business offerings. Some sub-contract other companies to provide the services as a white-label agency, profiting a dollar or two per minute, some take the whole operation in-house. Both approaches put interpreters into a challenging reality: interpreters have become a commodity.

The more interpreters are seen as a commodity, the easier it is to swap out interpreters for cheaper ones. It, in a way, is the de-professionalization of the industry.

How much easier is it to replace an expensive cog in a machine with a cheaper one, than to replace lawyers or a company executive?

This is also compounded by the sweeping changes coming to the community interpreting world, interpreters as employees. The Internal Revenue Services continues their audits and is challenging the primary business relationship between agency and interpreter. Interpreters as employees necessarily will mean:

  • a lower hourly rate for interpreters
  • less flexibility in their schedules, and
  • less choice over which jobs they are assigned to

On the other hand, it means increased Workers Compensation costs for the agency, increased payroll taxes as overhead, more insurance liability, and more control over interpreter schedules and assignments. With all of these cost pressures on companies that exist to make a profit, corporations will gravitate towards cheaper interpreters: newly certified or non-certified. Also, newer interpreters might be more willing to have higher metrics, less flexibility in their work, and less decision-making authority.

The interpreting field is not the only field at risk. Recent publications in medical journals and magazines note the increased use of Nurse Practitioners and Physicians Assistants as a way to provide medical care at a cheaper rate versus Medical Doctors. This is compounded in the medical field by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services downward pressures on billable rates. Add in the increased use of tele-health, and this is extremely similar to the challenges that the interpreting profession is experiencing.

Update 5/2/2018: California courts are challenging Lyft and Uber to reclassify their drivers into employees as they are essential, a core part of their “usual course of business”, and needed for daily operations. Does that remind you of another industry? Maybe, interpreting?

Emory David Dively

Emory is an NIC: Master ASL interpreter, has operated small and large agencies, and consulted with agencies across the US. He has an MA in Communication & Leadership from Gonzaga University.