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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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Ease Communication provides these interpreter hopefuls with training and guidance as they study for, and eventually pass, the national exam. This training often includes sitting with certified interpreters, meeting weekly with a trainer to discuss situations and prepare for their certification examination, and attending workshops. Training that takes place while sitting with certified interpreters depends on the certified interpreter’s style. In my case, I allowed interpreters-in-training to watch me interpret a few calls, then I would ask if they were ready and willing to take some calls with me by their side. After each call, regardless of which of us was interpreting, we would take a few minutes to talk about the pros and cons of the choices we made while interpreting. I have spoken with other interpreters who never let interpreters-in-training take calls and those who immediately put them on the phones and took breaks. The idea is that interpreters-in-training, as long as they are in training, will work alongside a certified interpreter so they are able to receive helpful feedback. However, it is not uncommon to see these interpreters working alone taking calls just a few weeks after starting and prior to earning certification.

In some cases, interpreters-in-training are allowed to work without a certified interpreter immediately even though they have not received the full training. At times, this is the subject of great discussion among certified interpreters because interpreters-in-training are being scheduled for hours that could go to the certified interpreters. When I asked a trainer about this, he said, “I was told that it is very costly to have the [training program]. We are paying these people but they are not processing calls. That means that we are losing money.” Some interpreters-in-training have left Ease Communication immediately upon receiving their certification. This is another way that the company is not getting their money back from the training they provide: interpreters-in-training get all the training and mentoring from certified interpreters and earn money during their training period and then leave once they are certified. Understandably, Ease Communication needs some way to recoup the money they spend on interpreters-in-training; the company allows trainees to take calls on their own sooner so they can bill the FCC for the trainees’ time.

Since they are not certified sign language interpreters, Ease Communication pays interpreters-in-training anywhere from $10 to $18 less per hour than a certified interpreter. It should be noted that even at $20 per hour, trainees are earning considerable money without holding any credentials in interpreting. However, they are still earning less than they would if they were to interpret outside of VRS without any credentials. In addition, the use of noncertified interpreters is not unique to Ease Communication or to VRS. Many agencies have an increasing pool of noncertified interpreters working for them.10

The licensure issue raises questions of jurisdiction for VRS. For example, when an interpreter is working in Arizona but interpreting for callers in the state of New York, and the state of Arizona requires a license to interpret but New York does not, which state law should apply? When the law was proposed and later passed in Arizona, the rationale was to provide protection for members of the Arizona Deaf community. As a state legislation, it covers only the practice of interpreting in the state of Arizona. I was told by one manager that Ease Communication requires all interpreters in states with licensure requirements to hold a license to “cover their bases.” Although this may be the stated policy for Ease Communication, I have heard of interpreters working without such license in VRS centers.


The scheduler is a part of the operations department and is therefore supervised by the operations director, who is in the national office. In both of the centers, the scheduler is someone who is not an interpreter.11 Initially, the scheduler did just what the title suggested. Schedulers were responsible for filling time slots with the required number of interpreters. They were told by the national office the number of interpreters needed, and they would contact interpreters and see who was available and willing to take which shifts. This process has become more automated now, causing the scheduler’s duties to change.

Schedulers are no longer responsible for contacting interpreters to fill shifts. Interpreters are now able to log into a system through the Internet and see which shifts need to be covered and place a bid. The stated practice is that the scheduler then approves the bid based on the interpreter’s seniority.

Although schedulers have a great deal of control over the amount of work an interpreter gets, they do not have any supervisory responsibility and have very little, if any, interaction with the interpreters. Furthermore, the scheduler was often the focus of hostility from interpreters. In fact, many of the interpreters I spoke with talked about the fact that the scheduler who worked in their center seemed to them to be extremely incompetent. The interpreters were often angry with the scheduler because they did not get the schedule they wanted.

The control a scheduler is able to exert over interpreters depends on the status of the interpreter. That is, full-time employees have a set schedule; they work the same days and same time every week. Unless an interpreter takes a vacation, her schedule does not change. Part-time interpreters and freelancers are much less consistent. As a part-time employee, I would be able to view the shifts that needed to be covered by logging into the computer system. This can be done while at a center or from my home. These shifts are in thirty-minute increments. Once I have submitted the schedule I want, the scheduler then is able to approve or deny my request. The scheduler’s decision is based on the needs of the center and whether someone else has also requested the same schedule. Seniority also affects the schedule an interpreter gets.

Part-time and freelance interpreters are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours each week. Part-time employees who have the higher seniority are able to request the more ideal schedules. New or freelance employees are given the hours that are left. This provides an incentive for people to become and remain employees rather than independent contractors. It also encourages part-time employees to become full-time so that they can get a set schedule. This benefits Ease Communication because then they can be assured that the employee will cover 32 hours a week. Even though they would provide benefits to full-time employees, the amount of money they would be able to earn based on billable minutes generated by a full-time interpreter would be substantially more.

Even though it is stated that seniority is used to determine schedules, one interpreter, Kathryn, told me that she does not believe schedulers take seniority into consideration.

I have been working here for nearly five years. I was one of the first interpreters hired on here. [ . . . ] Don’t you think that would make my seniority high? Well I do. But I know for a fact that there are other interpreters who have been here less time than me and still get the schedules they want and I don’t always get the schedules I want.
10. In response to the growing use of noncertified interpreters some states have passed legislation requiring interpreters to hold national certification to work in their state.

11. This is common even outside of video relay service. Many schedulers who work for referral agencies are not sign language interpreters.

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