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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Video Relay Service Interpreters: Intricacies of Sign Language Access
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Each center is filled with various people who perform different functions. Depending on the size and location of the center, the hierarchal structure of the center and the number of roles within that hierarchy may differ somewhat.

Sign Language Interpreters

In VRS centers, a sign language interpreter is called a video interpreter (VI). Each center has a number of interpreters working at any given time. Some interpreters prefer only to work days, Monday through Friday, while others prefer only to work at night, depending on the interpreter’s other responsibilities (i.e., families, school, and other paid work).

There are three classifications of VIs at Ease Communication That is, VIs are either on staff at Ease Communication or work for the center on a contract basis. A VI who does not hold a national certification from RID is considered to be an “interpreter-in-training.” Interpreters-in-training are staff employees, but their continued employment is contingent on them taking and passing RID’s national certification examination within a given time frame, typically six months to a year. However, some interpreters-intraining unable to pass the RID exam or to get a testing slot because there are not enough spaces available are terminated. Interpreters-in-training provide an inexpensive source of labor for Ease Communication because noncertified interpreters are paid less than certified interpreters, but they can still accept calls that the center bills to the FCC.

staff interpreters

Interpreters who choose to become employees of Ease Communication, like I did, are required to fill out an application, provide information for a background/credit check, and submit to a urine test to detect potential drug use. Staff interpreters may have additional responsibilities in addition to interpreting calls. These responsibilities can include creating a newsletter, helping out with reports, sitting on committees for birthday parties (i.e., getting cakes and cards), morale improvement, and other non-interpreting-related activities.

In one center, all of the staff interpreters are also assigned chores, typically focused on cleaning the break room, to complete during their shifts. There is a list of duties and interpreters assigned to each affixed to the break room door. The interpreters place their initials next to their name to indicate the task was completed. I did not experience or witness any consequences when interpreters did not complete the duties they were assigned. Regardless of their additional functions, their primary role is to provide sign language interpretation for callers.

Staff interpreters can be classified as either part-time or full-time employees. Their status depends on the number of hours per week they work. Typically, part-time employees are not allowed to work beyond 29 hours a week. When I asked about this rule, Belinda, the manager for one of the centers, told me, “Working an average of 32 hours a week in a quarter constitutes full-time employment. Therefore, 29 hours gives us some wiggle room. Also, this allows interpreters to work more in one week if the call volume is high.” Although the rule is 29 hours, and this turns out to be the average in a given quarter, when the call volume is high, centers lift the cap on the number of hours an interpreter can work.

Full-time employees are scheduled for 40 hours per week, but they are only on the phones (e.g., interpreting calls) for 32 hours. The other 8 hours are spent assisting with administrative tasks and taking care of other, noninterpreting tasks.

freelance interpreters

Similar to staff interpreters, the primary function of freelance interpreters or independent contractors is to interpret calls. However, unlike staff interpreters, freelance interpreters are only responsible for interpreting. Although they may, and some do, participate in committee work, many of the freelance interpreters I spoke with only provided interpreting services.

Freelance interpreters also have a different application process. Freelance interpreters must satisfy the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of an independent contractor. One manager pointed out a manual provided by the federal government that aids companies so that they can ensure that their contractors are indeed contractors according to the IRS’s policies. To accomplish this, the interpreters must provide an invoice with their own letterhead and their tax-identification number. Furthermore, they must provide a statement that they do and will continue to work for other agencies.

Requiring freelance interpreters to provide additional documentation protects Ease Communication from workman’s compensation claims. Without this additional documentation, interpreters who were unable to continue to work due to repetitive motion injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome, a common occurrence among interpreters, could claim that their injuries were the result of working at Ease Communication and file a worker’s compensation claim against the center.

Not only do freelance interpreters have limited responsibilities, at Ease Communication they are also paid differently and not provided benefits. Because taxes are not paid on the employee’s behalf, the additional documentation provides proof to the IRS that the interpreter, not Ease Communication, is responsible for their employment taxes, which include the federal income tax withholding, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the federal unemployment tax.

Just as part-time staff interpreters are limited to a maximum number of hours they can work in a week, so are freelance interpreters. Freelance interpreters are not permitted to work beyond 29 hours per week. Because part-time employees and freelance interpreters are not able to get benefits, they are typically paid based on their certifications and experience alone. Therefore, it is not unusual to find part-time employees who earn just as much per hour as a freelance interpreter.


In an effort to increase the pool of interpreters, Ease Communication instituted a program for training would-be interpreters.9 These interpreters are theoretically within six months of gaining a national certification from RID. Often they have very little experience in any arena and thus bring very little practical experience to video relay.

9. One video relay provider has also started an “institute” for training interpreters. Although this might increase the number of interpreters for video relay service, it also further stretches the already thin resources of interpreter trainers (see Brunson 2010).

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