To charge or not to charge… That is the question

Jemina Napier:

I work here at Heriot-Watt in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies (LINCS). My expertise is in doing research on, and teaching, sign language interpreting, and I also work as a sign language interpreter. Since arriving at Heriot-Watt University I have discussed with my BSL team colleagues the idea of having a regular blog in sign language to bring key information to the Deaf community and the wider interpreting community, and also to raise issues for discussion in relation to the Deaf community, sign language and other related topics. So my deaf colleague, Rita McDade, and I agreed to make a few BSL blogs on the lifeinlincs page. Some of these blogs may be on ‘hot’ topics, where we pose questions for consideration by the Deaf community and interpreters in the interests of generating discussion; and at other times we may make posts about more serious, research-related issues or to share information. Today’s first blog is a ‘hot’ tongue-in-cheek topic to get you talking (or signing!) and is in relation to interpreter professionalism and what is appropriate for interpreters to claim in terms of working hours and expenses. Rita will share her view and we’re interested to hear your thoughts. You can make postings underneath our blog (in English only at the moment) here on the lifeinlincs page.

Rita McDade:

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to address this subject but it is worth considering the possibility, as I have, that we have been rather slow in raising this issue: that we have neglected to address it.  Whether we have purposefully done so out of a desire to avoid the subject or because we have simply not considered it as yet I do not know but this is what we have done.

All disabled people in employment in our society have access to government funding through the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).  This is mediated through Job Centre Plus and is called Access to Work Funding, known as ATW.  Funding applications are assessed and granted according to the needs of each individual worker which, for people like me, means that funding for an interpreter is put in place so I can attend meetings and communicate with work colleagues who are unable to use British Sign Language (BSL).  The funding has been in place for approximately 20 years now with most disabled employees finding it beneficial.  Recently though I realised that I have been rather slow to notice something.

Those of us who are in employment will be familiar with the fact that we work according to the hours laid down for us by our employers and that, however many hours we work in our full or part time posts, we are contractually obligated to these.  One feature of this is that our lunch break is unpaid.  For over 20 years now I have been booking interpreters from agencies run by both Deaf organisations and private companies as well as freelance interpreters and have only just noticed that the hours invoiced for the interpreting service includes payment over the lunch break.  I have no quibble with the service provided or the fact that I am responsible for processing and signing off these invoices since this is indeed my responsibility.  What has come to my attention is the fact that, while those of us in employment are not paid during the lunch break, interpreters are.  So, I have begun to ask myself, why are interpreters’ lunch breaks covered as part of the overall service cost?

I believe this is a situation that needs changing.  I believe that the manner in which interpreters are paid should fall into line with the norm for other employees and that hours chargeable should be the hours worked only.  For example, a booking of 10am till 4pm requires payment for the whole day.  I believe it should be chargeable from 10am till 12 noon then 1pm till 4pm with one hour off for lunch and therefore one hour deducted from the invoice.  At the moment, the former system is the norm and nobody has challenged this.  As I said earlier, I am unsure whether this is because we have not noticed this anomaly or whether we are reluctant to address it because we do not want to disrupt the status quo given our reliance on interpreters.  It may very well be that interpreters are uneasy about raising this issue and have similarly chosen to leave it be.  One thing is, however, very clear and that is that we should be addressing this.

When we stop to consider the cost, that we are actually paying a lunch break at the current interpreter rate of between £30 and £40 per hour it seems strange.  In fact, it would be nice if I could have that luxury!  This has to change and we have to discuss it amongst the wider community.  At the moment we are either resistant to the conversation or simply have not thought about it as a concern.  My instinct tells me that there are those who have noticed this incongruity but have yet to raise it as a discussion point.  If we do as I believe we should do and begin to refuse payment for lunch breaks we may find that interpreters decline to work with us but this is a matter of principle, a matter of parity for all those in work.  Why should interpreters be treated differently to most other employees?  Why should interpreters be the only workers paid £30 to £40 per hour for doing nothing more than eating lunch?  It’s an expensive lunch and one I wish I could indulge in!

An additional issue is car parking charges added to invoices that were neither discussed nor negotiated before the assignment was accepted.  The response when challenged is based on the assumption that any money paid out by the interpreter is claimed back from the client but I would contest that assumption and argue that it is the individual’s choice to use whatever mode of transport they wish.  Costs associated with this choice should not be passed on to the client.  Those of us in work know that costs incurred in our working hours such as car parking are our own responsibility and not claimed back from our employer.  I believe it is time to have a discussion on all these points and we would be very interested to see your thoughts on this issue.

4 thoughts on “To charge or not to charge… That is the question

  1. Interesting blog Rita and it is definitely healthy to raise this issues and get a discussion going.
    I agree that interpreters should not expect to be paid for a lunch break and I am surprised that Access to Work are still paying for this. In my experience it certainly hasn’t been allowed by AtW for some time. However, on the other side of the coin, if I am not being paid for a lunch break I expect to be able to have my lunch- all too often the ‘working lunch’ comes up, or the deaf employee has such a hectic diary that appointments run into each other and there is no opportunity for a ten minute tea/ toilet break, let alone a lunch break. I am sure all interpreters try and fit in with the deaf employee’s schedule when a ‘working lunch’ is a one-off or occasional occurrence, but if it is a regular, accepted practice amongst employees in a particular workplace then I will generally make sure I take my ‘unpaid’ lunch at some point during the day.
    I do not think things are so clear cut in terms of car park charges- these costs should definitely be made clear prior to the booking but car parking is sometimes unavoidable and very expensive. Employees are aware of the costs of travel and car parking etc. when they take on their employment and can factor this into their living expenses. Interpreters on the other hand can be travelling to different locations on a daily basis and may chose not to take the booking unless they can recuperate some of the travel/ parking costs, Obviously this is down to the choice of the individual, and in the current economic climate there is always someone prepared to do the job on the cheapest budget possible- but is that really what we want to see happen in the profession? Many of these issues may well be moot if AtW go ahead with the move to salaried interpreters (employed by the deaf person’s organisation/ company) for deaf people with an AtW budget of 35 hours or more per week. This proposal brings with it a whole raft of potential problems and I will be interested to see how it works in reality.

  2. Hi Rita, thanks for this blog. As someone who has been freelancing now for 12 years I find it easier to charge for a full or half day’s work. That way you are being paid for your knowledge, experience and skills at a simple flat rate. As soon as we break things into hours we devalue our work as knowledge workers. You can still be competitive but where does work begin and rest end when you are always ‘on duty’. Let’s change the paradigm and keep things simple and transparent. It seems to me that the people that care about their craft, employed or freelance, are artists and as artists they never stop working or developing their skills 🙂 Iain

  3. I have yet to see a day where lunch is as clearly scheduled and lasts a full hour, in the middle of the day. How would one pay hourly an interpreter needed between 9-10, then from 11 to 2pm Must they take an unpaid brunch break, or would I pay that person a full day fee or near full day fee anyway? Locally, I go by half days, otherwise, I charge a flat full day fee. Some are long hard days, some are short and easy, and a break at some point to eat and regain energy is always welcome!

  4. Dear Rita,

    Thank you for raising the issue.

    Rather than commenting, I would like to ask a couple of questions:

    First, the hourly rate of £30-40 seems quite high to me, at least from a community interpreter (spoken language interpreter) perspective. I know quite a few interpreters who would feel very valued to earn that kind of hourly rate (once again, I am referring to community interpreters/public service and NOT conference interpreters whose rates were successfully negotiated decades ago). So I am wondering if you are contracting interpreters through an agency, in which case the agency will take at least 30% of the rate you are paying and the interpreter will be left half of the amount at best. This would beg the question – whose lunch break you are actually paying?

    Second, a lot of interpreters are freelancers, they have no job security, no pension plan and no social security, unlike those whose lunch time is apparently unpaid, unless they pay those contributions themselves. In the Irish system, with which I am far more familiar than with the situation in the UK, I have to admit, the employer as well as the employee pays some of the contribution towards these benefits, thus the burden is shared – in case of being employed, that is. In case of self-employment, however, the individual has to fork out all the contribution, which obviously further decreases the amount quoted in your article. For some reason, in the Irish system it is not particularly easy to pay your own social security unless you become a “sole trader,” a legal entity, which is only worthwhile if you are earning above a certain amount pa.

    Finally, interpreters rarely work every day. The flow of assignments is rather unpredictable, sometimes receiving requests constantly, but often waiting around in hope of an opportunity. Given the uncertainty of getting work on a continuous basis, and taking into account the deductions alluded to above, is the lunch break actually financially that beneficial to the interpreter?

    As for transportation and travel times, I agree that they should be discussed prior to taking the assignment. If the job is in the same population zone and reachable by public transportation, yes, parking fees should not be paid, However, if the interpreter is called upon to work outside his/her jurisdiction, some sort of compensation may be agreed on.

    Thanks again, Krisztina

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s