Lessons from the Summer of COVID-19: How to Assign Monetary and Professional Value to Your Work

Dear Colleagues,

It’s been a minute since I last posted a blog entry. I apologize for my absence, but despite the current pandemic and being a COVID long-hauler, I have had an incredibly busy and productive summer. I am fortunate enough to be someone who is okay but still coping with lingering and recurring symptoms. I am also lucky that I did not lose a lot of work during the pandemic, despite the state court closures and Alabama dragging their feet in figuring out how to conduct business virtually. I hope all of you are healthy, COVID free, and still earning a good paycheck without having to compromise your health & safety.

Being thrown into a pandemic and seeing how our profession in the States has reacted to it has allowed me to reflect on some important aspects of working as a court interpreter. As we head into a fall season that is already promising, for better or worse, to be eventful, I’d like to share my thoughts in a small series of posts to aid my colleagues as they move through the new (if temporary — hopefully) normal for interpreters.

I’m starting off with a topic that was already in the works pre-COVID but whose relevance has been brought to light by the pandemic: assigning monetary and professional value to your interpreting work, i.e., salary setting. Now, in order to avoid accusations of price-fixing or discouraging market competition, I will not be telling anyone how much to charge. I wouldn’t be able to give you a hard number anyway because, as you’ll see, there are many factors that any certified interpreter should consider when assigning value to their work.

As you go through these recommendations, you may get the sinking feeling that you have been significantly underpricing your work. Do not be ashamed – this is something that almost every working professional interpreter is guilty of doing. It’s also not unexpected since there are practically no guides on how much current interpreters are charging. On top of that, certain actors actively discourage wage transparency amongst interpreters to aid their bottom line. This is why I’m outlining common sense suggestions that any fresh university graduate needs to know when entering the job market. I’m passing these suggestions along to give you the space to evaluate and appreciate your professional worth. If you suspect that you have not been setting your fees correctly, I’ll also share some tips on how to correct course so that you can start to earn the living that you deserve as a professional interpreter.

Stop Thinking in Hourly Wages, Start Thinking in Yearly Salaries

Many, though not everyone, who are starting out as interpreters are entering a true profession for the first time. In past jobs, they’ve been compensated by the hour and are used to thinking about their income in those terms. When transitioning to a professional career, it’s crucial to drop that mentality because it could cause you to underprice yourself. A lot of the numbers that third-party service providers will throw at you will seem incredible, especially in the United States where the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.50/hr. and more progressive living wages are $15/hr. Don’t be fooled by these initial numbers by thinking in terms of hourly work.

An interpreter, like any other professional, is not providing an industrial service that can be valued and calculated by the hour. As many interpreters will tell you, the day of the actual interpretation is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the 10% of our work that clients actually see. The remaining 90 happens before and after the assignment is complete.

Remember: though we can be treated as such, we are not Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit, or Grub Hub. That’s not how professional interpreting work functions.

Instead, when sitting down to determine what your professional fees will be, ask yourself this: What salary do I need to earn on a monthly and yearly basis to cover the costs of practicing interpretation and provide me the comfortable living of a working professional?

Where working hours come into play is when you are looking at a proposed project or assignment and need to calculate how much time will be dedicated to complete it. This is different from thinking in terms of an hourly wage. Instead, you’re breaking down how much of your workday is being dedicated to the project and calculating your proposal based on that time. Once you’ve set a target for your salary, you can then begin to outline your pricing guide for assignments that can be used when submitting a proposal to a client. Setting a salary will also help you determine whether an assignment pays enough for it to be worth your time.

What to Consider When Calculating Your Salary

But what do you need to think about when setting salary? Being independent can be daunting because in traditional employment, the prospective employer will outline everything that’s included in their offer. Free-styling it, by comparison, is overwhelming.

If it helps, think of this as bringing yourself to the negotiating table. What terms would an employer need to offer you, in additional to your salary, to make the job of professional interpreter worth taking? If, before interpreting, you’ve worked as an employee, you may forget to include these additional benefits provided by an employer. You didn’t have to think about it in the past, but now it’s crucial that you don’t forget them! We have to build these things into our pricing. These are the things interpreters need to consider when building a successful practice:

Overhead Expenses

Even though we don’t work in a brick & mortar office, interpreters still have a lot of overhead that we need to successfully run our businesses. Let’s start with the basics. First, you’re going to need a way for your clients and the courts to contact you. That means a fully equipped smartphone with a solid data & minute plan. You’ll also want a professional website to advertise your services. Remember, you can’t get clients if they don’t know you exist. At an assignment, the average medical or court interpreter will need a writing medium to take notes, which means notepads, pens, or, if you’re tech savvy and environmentally conscious, a reusable tablet like a Boogie Board. You also need access to your corresponding dictionaries, both general and field-specific. These dictionaries will need to be a combination of hard-copy and electronic, because you won’t always be working in a place where you have your cellphone and a reliable signal to access electronic/online sources. For instance, in the legal world I have two main dictionaries I work with: Tomasi’s Law Dictionary (Hard Copy) and Diccionario Javier F. Becerra (online). I always have my hard copy with me because when I’m in jails and prisons, I can’t take a cellphone with me or can’t get any service. Some of the best resources require an annual or monthly membership fee. You’ll also need your own personal interpreting equipment, especially when there’s a pandemic.

If you do telephonic interpreting, you’ll need a landline or an internet to phone converter. In order to successfully provide virtual interpreting services, you’ll need a high-speed Broadband line (not Wi-Fi), up to date computer, and appropriate headset with a noise-cancelling microphone and Acoustic Shock Protection. You’ll also need separate storage space for all client documents to protect their confidentiality. (You can use a cloud, but I’m still not a fan because of the security vulnerabilities. I still prefer an old fashioned external hard drive.) If you provide transcription/translation services, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate software.

The overhead costs don’t end there. Medical and court interpreting mean a lot of commuting, even if it is just within county or state boundaries. In the United States, that means driving for the most part. Driving means you’ll need a reliable car, which will need regular maintenance, car insurance, and money for gas & parking. If you use mass transit, you’ll need to pay for the appropriate metro cards, bus, and train passes.

Do not go into this profession assuming there’s no overhead. There’s a ton of it and we need to make sure we’re making a good enough living to cover all of it without affecting our personal monthly budgets for living expenses.

Health Insurance

You’re going to need to make enough to afford a good health insurance plan. The quality of plans and financial aid to afford insurance vary by state, which is why it’s important to look at what you’ll really need to afford decent healthcare. Interpreting is incredibly taxing on the mind and body. You can’t do the mental gymnastics required of us, not to mention the traveling, if you’re unwell. We are also constantly exposed to people in poor health or less than sanitary conditions. It’s important that we have easy access to a primary care physician and a network of specialists to protect ourselves and others when exposed to sick individuals.

Interpreters are talking more and more about the psychological stresses that come with our job, especially when you’re working in the legal and medical field where we encounter harsh realities and hear difficult stories. As interpreters, we are supposed to be able to compartmentalize these, but we are also human, and sometimes we need to talk to a mental health provider. There is no shame in that and in order to prevent any lasting effects from secondary trauma, we should be able to financially access mental health services.

Professional Liability Insurance

So many wonderful interpreters that I know are currently working without an Errors and Omissions liability insurance. I would encourage you to please protect yourself and get a good E&O plan. Whenever someone files a lawsuit (which is their right), the typical strategy is to sue everyone involved and then eliminate parties to the lawsuit during discovery. This is done so that no potential defendant is missed and the aggrieved party doesn’t lose the opportunity to file suit. If you get caught up in a lawsuit defendant sweep, you want to make sure you’re well protected until you can be eliminated as a prospective defendant.

If you currently contract with agencies, their E&O policy does not usually protect you as an independent contractor, just them. Especially since interpreters aren’t always given the best working conditions by courts and referral agencies, it’s crucial that you buy this to protect yourself in the future. I sleep easier knowing I have this safety net.

Private Disability Insurance and Pensions

Interpreters are at risk for disability, because we rely on our minds, voices, and hearing to do our work. Take one out of the equation and we can no longer work as interpreters. Again, the social security offered in each state varies and is often not enough to cover your living expenses. While this may not be something you immediately invest in, it’s a good idea to consider buying a private disability insurance plan. It will help to supplement your income in the case that you suffer a bodily injury that takes you out of the interpreting field.

A private pension plan, however, is something you need to open right away. It’s virtually impossible to live off of your social security check alone. There are different kinds of plans that available, so explore your options. Once you pick a plan, start contributing a monthly amount. It doesn’t have to be much at first, and you can increase your deposits as you start earning more.

Cost of Certification Exams & Continuing Education

As professional interpreters, we have to pay to get certified in our respective fields. This is not just limited to the exams. You’ll need to study to prepare for the exams, which means several hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars in materials and courses. You’ll also likely travel, sometimes overnight, to take your exams. Like attorneys and physicians, we also need to do continuing education courses and pay our certifying bodies the fees they charge to maintain that certification. You may start out in one field and then pursue another certification to expand your client base.

All of this needs to be something you can afford from what you’re earning. You don’t have a boss, a company, a firm, court, or hospital paying for these things. These come out of your own pocket, so you need to earn a paycheck that can cover them.

Professional Association and Union/Guild Dues

While not required, it’s a good idea to be a part of a professional association, not just because it helps lend you credence as a professional but because it gives you opportunities to network with colleagues from all over the country and the world, as well as access to continuing education classes and additional professional resources. If in your state there’s an established professional union or guild, explore joining one so that you can make sure you have a voice and collective power in legislative matters and in addressing the injustices faced by interpreters every day. These memberships come with fees that you’ll need to pay annually to support their work.

Administrative Work and other Business Expenses

In order to be paid by clients, the courts, and agencies, we need to be able to bill them. Whether you choose to handle the administrative work yourself or hire someone, you’ll need to account for the time and money it takes to do this work. Depending on how you want to get paid, you’ll also need to pay for a payment service or for the fees they charge for fund transfers. Other administrative work includes following up with clients whose payment deadline is coming up, following up with project inquiries and finalizing project contracts. Project contracts mean that you’ll consult with an attorney at some point to make sure the contract language you’re using is up to date and the best for your business. Additionally, you’ll have to do the taxes for your business, whether a corporation or a sole-proprietorship. That means hiring an accountant or accessing the appropriate software to do your taxes.

Speaking of taxes…

Income Taxes

If you’re mainly filing 1099s that means your clients are not taking out all income taxes from your paychecks. An employer, even at restaurants or retail stores, will take these out of their employees’ checks; but you don’t have this employer. This means it’s up to you to set aside enough money to pay these taxes, either quarterly or at the end of the year. If not, you may be slammed with an unforeseen tax bill. Remember, all of the money in the paycheck isn’t yours until the local, state, and federal governments have all gotten their appropriate cut. (Note: This is why I encourage you to look into either becoming an LLC or incorporating to cut your taxes and be able to expense more business costs. Consult with your accountant or tax attorney to see what would be the best fit for you.)

Vacation, Sick Leave, and Family Leave

In the United States, paid time off is seen a luxury and not a necessity to make sure we have a strong, healthy workforce. This does not mean that you should dismiss the importance of taking time off, be it for vacation or out of necessity. In order to take that time off, you’ll need to make sure you have something to live off of, because once you block off that time you won’t be getting any compensation. When determining your salary, make sure you’re making enough to “pay yourself” during that time.

As an independent contractor, you should not have to give up going on vacation, having a family, or taking care of yourself and your loved ones to work as an interpreter.

Cost of Living in Your Area

You have to make sure that you are earning enough to live like a professional wherever you are. If you’re in New York City, make sure you can actually survive on your salary. If you’re in a much more affordable place, like Alabama, you still have living expenses that need to be covered. Interpreting is a unique profession in that we don’t always work where we live. Being conscious of that, we need to make sure that we aren’t unintentionally undercutting the earnings of our colleagues in more costly parts of the country. This means, if you’re a Tennessee interpreter taking a job in Washington DC, make sure you’re paid like a DC interpreter would be for that same job. Make sure your client is hiring you for your skillset, not for being cheap.

Expertise

Expertise and experience are both bargaining chips at the employee contract negotiation table and should not go unappreciated by us just because we are independent. If you’re someone with the credentials and years of experience, you shouldn’t still be charging like a newbie. If you have a higher certification, get paid like someone who earned that certification. Don’t undervalue what you’re offering your clients.

Emergency Savings Fund

Expect the unexpected. Sometimes, things happen in life that will end up costing you money. In the United States, too many people are one car repair or hospital bill away from not making ends meet. Make sure you’re prepared in case something happens and have enough in a savings account set aside strictly for these emergencies to cover you.

All of these factors, in addition to your credentialing and experience, should be included in your price setting.

Don’t Fear Wage Transparency

Salary transparency is gaining popularity in companies that have a traditional employer/employee model as a way to combat wage disparities because of gender and race. It can be uncomfortable to discuss how much you make with colleagues because of how “gauche” we’re taught it is to discuss money. In the independent contractor world, this is further amplified by our desire to avoid being accused of price fixing. However, just as our colleagues in other fields have discovered the advantages of salary transparency, we too can benefit from talking to our colleagues.

How can we use salary transparency as independent contractors? You can always approach a trusted colleague and ask what they believe would be fair terms for a certain assignment. If you have a concrete example from a recent offer, tell them about it. Get their thoughts. This will allow you to gage whether your fees are appropriate. This is exactly how I realized that I was severely underpricing myself when I first started out. Having this knowledge empowered me to charge fees that I feel meet my professional worth.

This is not the same thing as giving someone full access to your price sheet. There’s this huge fear that any information we provide may be used against us in order to steal a client. I understand this fear and my best recommendation is to talk to someone you really trust. If you fear sharing what you’re currently charging, then get thoughts on concrete offers that were made to you by prospective agencies or clients. It’s enough to hear feedback like, “this looks about right”, “no, they’d need to double it for me consider” or “absolutely not because they’re not compensating x, y, and z”.

Alternatives to Slashing Prices in Order to Attract Clients

You don’t need to market yourself as a Blue Light Special to get clients. Again, you want clients that value the service you’re providing, not your low, low price tag. There are plenty of other ways to sell yourself to the client. One is to explain what services your fee includes. For example, when I do a deposition, I’m not only working for the client on the day of the actual deposition. I spend the days leading up the deposition getting a history of the case, what will be covered by the deposition, preparing terminology, and also make myself available to meet with my client in a pre-session if he or she so desires and after the deposition to follow-up with the client on how things went and if they will need me for further services relating to the case. My clients also know that if something does come up, I will do everything I can to prioritize them and their needs over other work. They know that they are also paying for my availability. 

My clients also know I have a referral network of trusted colleagues if I am unavailable to provide services. In turn, my colleagues will also occasionally refer me to their private clients when there’s something they can’t cover. Whenever we cover assignments for each other, there’s never a referral fee. There’s also never a sense of obligation to take the assignment. Sometimes, they’ll call me about an assignment that I feel doesn’t pay enough or that I’m simply not interested in. In those instances, I turn down the work and there are no hard feelings. We also never purposefully undercut the other’s fee to steal a client. Trust me, when you’re an unscrupulous interpreter, word gets around fast and it will be hard to find colleagues willing to work with you. Don’t be shady.

I also have a set of clients in the non-profit/public interest sector to whom I offer special pricing because of the nature of their work and budgets. This is not something you have to do, but it’s something that I feel comfortable doing. The fees I offer them do not undermine my professional worth, because I’m choosing to offer them. And if the day arrives where I no longer want to do the work or we cannot agree on a fee renegotiation, I have no problem walking away. But for now, they also provide a reliable stream of income as great clients.

Your experience and expertise are also great selling points. When you’re looking for a doctor or an attorney, what do you consider? Typically, you look at credentials, how long they’ve been in the specialty, and patient satisfaction. If I need an important surgery, I’d rather get on the waitlist for the best doctor I can afford with my insurance. Same goes with an attorney. If I find myself in a legal situation, then I want to make sure I have the best, most trusted attorney that I can afford. You’re offering the same as an interpreter.

If you’re new, don’t worry. Your certifications are very much still a selling point in a market where non-credentialed bilinguals are still allowed to interpret. Once someone experiences the difference of working with a professional, credentialed interpreter, they rarely go back to the cheaper alternative. Additionally, if you have other credentials and work experience that complement your interpreting work, do not be afraid to use those to sell yourself.

Troubleshooting Underpricing

After reading all of this, you may be getting the sinking feeling that you’ve been undercharging. Again, do not feel ashamed of this. It’s happened to virtually everyone. You’re also not stuck working as a bargain-priced interpreter. You can still fix this and work towards your salary goal.Once you figure out your pricing guidelines, you’ll need to pick the ideal time to announce these price changes. New clients will be easy, because they’ve never known anything different. Here’s how you can ease breaking the news to your existing clients:

Find the right time to make a price change

A good time to announce fee increases is before the New Year. You want to give your clients enough time to process the news and to possibly come back and negotiate with you. The last time I did a price increase, I let me clients know at the beginning of November. I simply sent an email letting them know about the changes and that they were free to get in touch with me to ask any questions. If you have a contract with a state or federal agency, you may want to do this a few months before the end of the Fiscal Year (October) so that they can have the appropriate budget in place.

Justifying the Increases

There are plenty of reasons you can use to justify the fee increase. First and foremost, you can always use your years of experience. Many professionals who are employees will get opportunities to renegotiate their contracts every one to two years. Use your experience to “renegotiate” a higher fee for yourself.

You can also use any new certifications to up your prices. For court interpreters, if one year you earn federal certification, use that as a reason to bump up your prices because now your clients will be getting the services of a federally certified interpreter, which is a certification that only 5% of test takers achieve. For LOTS languages, you can pursue the accreditation that Federal courts will accept to allow these interpreters to work on their cases. LOTS language speakers that don’t have available credentialing exams need to pursue every step of interpreter training and language testing available to them in order to separate themselves from everyday bilinguals. And if your language is rare but in high demand, use that as a selling point.

And if all else fails, good old fashion inflation and cost of living expenses are more than good enough to justify an increase in prices. What was considered a good living 30, 20, or even 10 years ago wouldn’t cut it today.

Most importantly, you do not need to feel guilty or greedy for increasing your fees. Every business does this. Doctor’s offices, attorneys, and even hair dressers will increase their fees according to these same criteria. There’s no reason for interpreters to be treated differently.

“Special Fees” for Existing/Loyal Clients

Making an offer of a special fee to your most loyal clients is a completely valid tactic. Just make sure you’re not lowballing yourself. This special fee demonstrates that you value them as a client and are interested in keeping their business.

Final Thoughts:

What I covered here is pretty extensive, but it’s by no means exhaustive. Please also keep in mind that it may take a while to meet your salary goals. Just because the results aren’t immediate doesn’t mean you should give up on earning a professional salary. Remember, interpreting isn’t just a job; it’s a professional career. I hope that after reading this, you’ll feel empowered to start working towards this goal.

Feel free to share any tips or experiences in the comments.

One thought on “Lessons from the Summer of COVID-19: How to Assign Monetary and Professional Value to Your Work

  1. This is a great piece Gabriela. It is right on target and a post that all freelancers should read. Thank you for taking the time to write it and for your genuine interest in the profession.

    Like

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