06 Feb Is it Better to be Hired by Assignment or by the Day?
Per Diem vs. Per Assignment
I have been a freelance interpreter since January 2007. For the first seven years of that period, I was hired exclusively to work per assignment by agencies. It wasn’t until 2014, when I first became certified, that I started working per diem for New York and New Jersey courts. Illinois and Wisconsin courts hire per diem and per assignment as well.
I like working per assignment because after the assignment, I get to go home and work on marketing and growing my business, do all my NAJIT volunteer work, write blogs, or simply show up at my sister’s home or my son’s to see the grandchildren. It gives a lot of flexibility to my days, and I enjoy that freedom.
I have never worked per diem for an agency, and I doubt I ever will
To be honest, I did not know that agencies hired per diem since I had never been offered such an assignment in my sixteen years in the profession. Then, a few months ago, I received a text request for a first assignment with a reputable agency.
The official offer came via e-mail offering me to work a specific one-day trial in a state court. So, I agreed and arrived early, as is customary for me, only to find out that it would be a very short assignment. The agency seemed to think – and I do not know why – that after the cancellation, they could use my services for any other case they chose to assign to me, just as you would an employee, or someone that you hire per diem, despite the fact that the contractual e-mail specifically stated that I was hired for a particular assignment.
I have clarified with the agency’s owner and their personnel that if I am hired for a trial, that is the trial that I am to provide services for. If I am offered to be hired for the day and take such an assignment, then I am to provide services for that day. I have never worked per diem for an agency, and I doubt I ever will, now that I know about the practice. I do not like to work in that manner, and since it is up to me, that is what I have decided to do at this stage in my career.
The first agency I worked for, and for which I continue to work occasionally, is Interprenet, co-owned by David Medrano and Carlos Cantu. In the years that I have worked as a freelance interpreter for them, they have grown exponentially and have become a prestigious global agency. I have provided services for them from 2007 to date. For the period 2007 to 2012, although I did not have an exclusive contract and worked occasionally with other agencies, I worked mostly for this one agency because they kept me busy, they paid me well, the check was never late, and I did not need to invoice them. I still love working for them! I believe they also like working with me because they know I am reliable, I will never be late, and I will never cancel, except under extenuating circumstances, or try to pass on the assignment to a colleague. One reason I do not work more for the agency than I do is that now that I am certified, I can work directly with the courts, and I truly enjoy working in court – mostly trials, but also all kinds of criminal, civil, and family cases.
My experience with large and reputable agencies like Interprenet, such as Kevin McGuire’s Atlas Language Services, is that the agency hires me on a per-assignment basis, and if that assignment gets cancelled or is shorter than the number of hours anticipated, I am nonetheless released from that given assignment and am paid the full amount stipulated in the contract.
I have consulted with many colleagues, and they all agree that the contractual e-mail is the ruling document for these interactions. That is how everyone I consulted works.
Now, in my experience, working with courts can include per-diem and per-case assignments, and I like working with courts in either type of arrangement. Having full days, provided I work as part of a team, if working long assignments, is a great experience: the fee is fair, the terms are great, the day is full, I get to work different types of cases, and I get to see and interact and network with colleagues and coordinators in person (something that rarely happens if I come in for one case only). Plus, courts give me work volume.
I hone my skills, so I get to choose
I am sure that the agency I mentioned will probably never hire me again, and that is regrettable, but I have my standards. I am certified in four states, three of which via direct testing. I continue to test at every opportunity – I just tested in New York, although I am not required to recertify – to make sure my skills are current. I completed about 135 instructional hours with 40 CEUs last year alone, though I am required only 12 CEUs every two years. I also continually study with different groups and consult colleagues with more experience than I have on different terms, strategies, and best practices. And that, in my view, has earned me the right to choose the kind of work I do.
Does anyone feel differently? I would love to know your point of view.
Hilda Zavala-Shymanik is a state certified/approved Spanish court interpreter and translator with more than fifteen years of experience in legal, medical, corporate, and non-profit settings in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Wisconsin. She is a board member, treasurer, Conference Committee chair, member of the Training and Education Committee and blog team of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators as well as former president of the New York Circle of Translators. She is an active and voting member of NAJIT, ATA, and other professional groups. Hilda has two certificates in Legal Interpreting in Spanish and English, the latest one from NYU. Hilda is a former a Staff Interpreter at Essex County Superior Court in New Jersey, where she worked for six years. She now lives and works as a freelance interpreter in the Chicagoland area. Born in Chicago, Hilda lived for twenty years in Mexico and loves traveling. She continuously looks for opportunities to promote and advance the interpreting profession. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Main photo (cropped) “Sky Daytime” by Conquestus, from NEWGROUNDS, under the CC BY 3.0 license. Body photos: “Carrying Lumber up to Taktsang, Bhutan, 2002” by Terry Feuerborn, from flickr, under the CC BY-NC 2.0 license; “Alarm clock PNG,” from pngimg.com, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Public License.
13 thoughts on “Is it Better to be Hired by Assignment or by the Day?”
Very interesting perspective. So, if you are hired by the agency for the day rather than for the case, then you would do it? I am not certain I understand. You can certainly choose who to work with, but if I am hired by an agency or by the courts to do a full-day hearing, and it gets canceled the same day or if it lasts only 30 minutes as opposed to 8 hours, and the court needs me elsewhere, charging twice would be double-dipping. Granted that I am not sure what or how the agency would charge such an assignment, it is not my practice to simply pack up and leave because I was contracted for an assignment that was canceled, especially if I have charged a cancelation fee. Another thing that I always take into consideration is that our pay is coming from taxpayers’ money (if the courts are contacting me directly), and I happen to be one. So, as a fiscally responsible taxpayer, I would not just leave and refuse to work. Maybe we should request agencies (and the court) if they are hiring us per day or per case. That seems to be possible solution. What do you think?
Good points, Christina. FOR IN-PERSON HEARINGS, SOSi (immigration court) hires “per case.” The Contractor Agreement states that the interpreter will be paid hourly and the interpreter commits (and will be paid for) a set minimum number of hours. The “assignment,” on paper, consists of a single case, but the Contractor Agreement also states that the contracted interpreter will continue to work any additional cases that require an interpreter until dismissed by the Court. Usually, that means only during the morning or the afternoon. Structuring it that way, in my opinion, assures the Court that an interpreter will be available throughout the entire morning (or afternoon), or for the entire day if needed, and also pays the interpreter for actual work done with a guaranteed minimum for the “1/2-day shift.” As much as some may or may not like SOSi’s way of doing things, I believe that this policy provides clarity, fairness and predictability, both for the court and for the interpreter.
I think we all agree. The point is the contract/agreement. If you hire me for a day, you get a day, If you hire me for a case, you get a case. It is the agreement that rules.
Hello Hilda, thanks for sharing your experience. I agree, contract rules. Regardless of the client, you should not be expected to take other cases unless the contract was for a certain period of time instead of by case.
Not at all. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that I choose not to work with agencies for the full day. They normally charge for every single assignment. So do I.
And many courts that hire me per assignment sometimes ask me if they can add one more. I just had eleven the other day, but It started with one. But they always ask. If they schedule me for 10 to 10:15 am, they know that I may have another case at 1 pm an hour away so they are considered enough to ask. They never assume I have blocked any other time than the time they have requested and I agreed to. Maybe I am just lucky that way?
Thank you for your comment. I truly appreciate that you take the time to read my thoughts and share yours!
Thank you for bringing this up, Hilda! As a green student of tax law, this brings to mind the issue of what the IRS calls “employee misclassification” which can affect agencies and courts that hire by the half-day and the full-day. I am with you that there is definitely a component of preference as to whether we, the self-employed interpreters, prefer working one way or another, but equally as relevant is that there is also a tax law component for the hiring party. Per the IRS, a subcontractor is hired to carry out a specific task or project, and there are a number of guidelines that a hiring party needs to carefully apply to make sure they are not making the punishable and fineable mistake of hiring workers as subcontractors to be used as employees (a practice many private businesses utilize to avoid the higher costs associated with a W2 employee). Some of these grounds that distinguish an employee from a contractor are: type of project (short and specific for contractors vs long and vague for employees) , work schedule (set by employer for their employees), job freedom (contractors can refuse specific assignments for whatever or no reason at all, whereas employees must generally do whatever work the employer requests), pay structure (scheduled and consistent regardless of tasks performed for employees vs per task/assignment for subcontractors), tax payment (withheld and deposited to IRS for employees vs self-employed which must be deducted and filed on our own), availability of benefits (many for employee vs none), etc.
As we can see above there are certain grey areas where a per-day hiring employer may flirt with treating a subcontractor as an employee, such as in an interpreting assignment having to be carried out at a specific time and date, which doesn’t necessarily mean the employer is setting the subcontractors schedule entirely. This task is impossible to bend to the whim of a subcontractor, and the IRS understands these types of issues. Where the employers lose their way, in my humble opinion, is in hiring by time blocks. This opens the door for an employee-employer relationship where a worker now needs to check in and see if the work is truly “complete” and is then free to leave, whereas when working by the task (by the hearing, case, etc) an interpreter knows exactly when the predetermined work is done. Not knowing when a task is complete is not typical subcontractor behavior. It helps to think of other industries to make a proper determination… for example, if the landlord of an apartment building were to hire a plumber to install a sink and agreed beforehand to a set price (loosely based on say, two hours of labor) for an industry standard sink installation. If the plumber winds up being done in an hour and a half the landlord is not then entitled to a discount, nor to ask him to unclog a kitchen drain with the remaining time (with zero extra cost), nor to sit around and wait just in case a new plumbing issue arises in the building. The quote was for an assignment and the plumber came prepared for that specific assignment and for an agreed fee. If the hiring party needs to be able to direct the plumber in any of those additional ways as a normal practice, they need to hire one as an employee to have on staff.
To be clear, I am not bringing this up as a complaint, but rather as a head-scratching “hmmm” that comes up when I notice the “employee-ness” of certain aspects of what we do. It seems to me that the IRS-approved way (which would have its own pros/cons) would be that interpreters be hired for specific pre-identified hearing(s) with a standard average time based on hearing type or difficulty… if after completion a new hearing arises under the same estimated time (our clogged kitchen sink equivalent), the subcontractor can definitely be asked to help… yet it is never assumed that a “yes” is the only answer. Rather, as good businesspeople we acknowledge that our time for the add-on was covered in the original fee and our desire to provide great customer service would lead us to accept any additional task except under exigent circumstances, which will likely lead to more future business. Conversely, if we refuse to assist with an add-on (particularly without a reasonable explanation), then the hiring party has the right to be displeased and not use us next time. This also does away with the “double-dipping” concern since pay is disconnected from the clock, and instead is related to the task at hand. Was the agreed task completed for x dollars as agreed? Then feel free to go do another for x dollars, here or elsewhere. This is exactly how a competent mechanic at a car dealership can legally produce 16 or more hours of billable labor in a 10 hour work day, by completing a brake job in 3 hours that the manufacturer estimates requires (and is billed at) 4. The employee misclassification question arises when the interpreter’s assignment becomes covering a block of time versus providing service for a pre-determined hearing(s). Again, not presenting this as a call for change, but as an interesting topic of discussion.
I don’t think I could be better at sharing my thoughts! I do believe it is more of a customer service issue because the examples you give are precisely comparable. It is not expected of the plumber to stay there for an extra hour if he ended sooner, or work on another thing because he finished early. When a deponent doesn’t show up on time, some attorneys will apologize to me. I always tell them, “You hired me for three hours for this assignment, so I can wait all three hours if you’d like me to”. And I have waited all 3 hours a few times. But the attorney doesn’t ask me to make a couple of phone calls to his other clients that need interpretation while we’re waiting. I think that, as we say in Mexico, “En el pedir esta el dar”, which would be loosely translated as “the (key of) granting is (found) in the asking”. If I’m asked with consideration and kindness, I can do certain things. But sometimes attorneys believe that you are their employee, if not their property. I’ve had attorneys DEMAND that I call their clients when they don’t show up on time. Some others have asked me to use my personal cell phone to create a connection if a Zoom meeting doesn’t have the simultaneous feature ready for use, and that I mute myself while I interpret to the deponent, and then unmute to give them the answers.
You make great points. I think you should submit a blog post on this topic. I would love to read more!
I love the opportunity to think about this issue. Very relevant and current topic, thank you for starting us in this conversation, Ms. Shymanik!
One of the most articulate, detailed, and convincing comments written in response to any of my posts!
It’s a great argument or quasi-argument as you make it clear you are not advocating for either, from a practical, accounting and tax standpoint.
Doctors and lawyers as you mentioned often do the same thing and have more billable hours than exist in a typical workday, but that rewards their own efficiency.
The plumber and mechanic arguments are perfect. If you take your car to a mechanic for an oil change you can’t then tell him “well that only took you 20 minutes, so can you please rotate tires for the same price?” The word “employee-ness” is well stated because this particular agency, I think, wanted to treat the interpreter as an employee, as if they “own you” all day and yet compensate you as a subcontractor or an independent contractor with no benefits, and without the same tax implications that an employee derives.
I was just thinking of my handyman, Kilo. I hired him to remodel my kitchen for a fixed price. He thought it would take him a week and I calculate it took him about that with the false starts, because of missing materials, etc. It didn’t matter. He did a great job and I paid him. If it had taken less, I would have owed the same amount. I wouldn’t have asked for more as part of the stated price. I ended up ask him to do other things afterwards, and he did them, but he charged for each item separately. The way my handyman works is then exactly the way I’m hired for a job.
When I worked as a freelance accounting manager and bookkeeper, I billed by the hour but I was hired to do a specific task. For example, every Monday I did payroll, Wednesdays commissions or whatever was due. They could ask me to do something else when I was done, and I had the choice to do it or not if I was expected elsewhere, whether another business or simply going to a movie and dinner with friends.
I think the point here is the optional part of it. It must be a choice. That is exactly the important part of it. If I am scheduled to work from 1 to 2 pm, and the courts know my minimum fee is 3 or 4 hours, even though I’m getting paid for three or four hours, they also know that one hour is the time that I allocated to that particular assignment. And again, a court is a completely different entity that an agency. From working for the courts as a staff interpreter, it is my experience that agencies send a voucher for every single event so that is one of the reasons I choose not to work per day for them.
Another great point you make is that you can say no, but then the agency has the right as a free company not to use you. I have never had an agency that proposed to hire me by the day in 16 years before the one I am talking about, so I really doubt that will ever happen again unless the whole model of the profession changes.
Regarding what Christina shared, I agree with her concern about being taxpayer conscious, however if a case cancels without notice or if when I arrive there is a plea vs a trial there is nothing I can do about it. And again I am always flexible if I am available.
When working for the agencies that I mentioned, I could have a case at 8 am and on the way there they would call me to let me know the case canceled and would ask if I could take a 10 am regardless of the fact that the 8 am would have lasted until, say 11 am because they would know that I could already possibly have something scheduled at noon, which would have make unavailable to take a 10 am case with a 3 hour minimum availability. Now if I was available, not only would I get paid for that second case but I would also get a last-minute compensation of 1.25 the amount I normally charged. And so on with as many jobs they could probably be paired, so that many where the days that I billed got paid for 10-15 hours.
In the end those are the “unspoken” rules of offer and demand in our profession.
And again, it could just be that I am the luckiest interpreter on earth!!
Paula, Jesse and Christina,
You all three should submit proposals!! If you email me at email@example.com I will be happy to give you all the information you need to create your own post.
Hi from Australia!
Unrelated to the topic, but equally relevant I believe, is the use of the phrase “use” an interpreter (pun intended! We have been fighting now for this horrible phrase to be substituted by the more palatable expressions “engage” an interpreter or “work with” an interpreter.
Rationale being that one ‘uses’ a tool, not a person, and being ‘linguists’ and knowing the power of words, when people say ‘use an interpreter’ it sounds like we have no agency of our own, that we can be used (and mis-used) at will. I personally loathe the expression and when people ask me “can we use you?” I cheekily say: “not really, but you can engage me” anytime!
What say you? colleagues in the USA?
Hello Patricia. To use legalese “I stand corrected”. I love the suggestion. I’ll “use” it from now on! 🙂
I always like new ways to improve the way I express things. Just as Janis Palma is getting me used to saying judiciary interpreter instead of court/legal Interpreter.