The Couch

The Couch: A Disagreement on Terms of Payment

The Couch is a place to exchange ideas and brainstorm, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. Sometimes, if not everything is clearly laid out from the beginning, embarrassing and undesirable situations can follow. Thank you to this week’s contributor for the Couch idea.


You have been called to travel for a trial in a region where interpreters are rarely needed. Apparently the case will be complex. You have to set aside three days to get there (the night before, the hotel, studying and familiarizing yourself with the case; the hearing itself the day the trial begins; your return home the next day).

To your surprise, when the hearing begins, everyone was expecting it to be rather long, but in fact, right off the bat, the defendant and his lawyer state that the defense intends to immediately enter a guilty plea. Okay, says the Court, and fifteen minutes later it’s over.

You return to your hotel and decide to invoice the agency that hired you, since your day is now mostly free. An hour after sending your invoice, the agency tells you that they will pay you only for fifteen minutes, not for the whole day. You object, but they say you’ve done almost no work, and in terms of interpretation proper, they’re right. But they are obviously and egregiously failing to take into account your travel, the days you set aside, your preparation time… what do you do?


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Body picture from “Pay me now, or pay me later…” by lakewentworth at flickr, under CC BY-NC 2.0

14 thoughts on “The Couch: A Disagreement on Terms of Payment”

  1. Daniel Shunra says:

    My minimum rate = my cancellation charge = the time that a client wants me to set aside for them. It has nothing to do with the extent to which they want to utilize that time for their purposes.

  2. Robert Forstag says:

    This possibility needed to be addressed in the agreement between the freelancer and agency at the time of assignment – especially given the fact that such last-minute deal-reaching is not exactly uncommon in many court systems.

    In the absence of such prior arrangements (including provisions for travel time, mileage, lodging, and meals), and/or a standing set minimum payment for *any* assignment, the freelancer can’t do much more than plead to the agency’s sense of what is “fair and reasonable.”

    If this is what it comes down to, then it could end up being an expensive lesson for the interpreter in question….

  3. Javier La Rosa says:

    This is one of those that I would have received a signed document from the agency SPECIFYING the RATES for 2 DAYS TRAVEL TIME AND MILEAGE, LODGING AND PER DIEM PLUS A MINIMUM OF TWO HOURS INTERPRETING TIME whether I interpreted 1 minute or the full two hour minimum.
    Without that GUARANTEE IN WRITING received at least 24 hours prior to the hearing , there’s NO WAY I would have traveled for that trial

  4. Susan A Dix-Barboza says:

    Well, of course this has happened in the worse way in the past.
    It is a good lesson to learn, though.
    Regarding this particular question, this particular time and event, there isn’t much you can do except learn from it.
    Of course, I would never accept another assignment from that agency.

    In the future……… always, always, always insist on a written contract that includes 1) travel time, 2) travel expenses, 3) hotel, 4) stipend 5) cancellation terms (48-hour advance notice or the amount for the entire period that you were reserved for), etc… whatever works for you… BUT all the terms must be agreed upon in writing and signed before accepting the assignment.

  5. Heidi Cazes says:

    First of all, you must have established the terms of service from the very beginning, when you agreed to the assignment.

    You have been hired for a certain number of days and you have included travel days. And you are being paid per full day, plus any hourly fee you have agreed upon for any hours beyond an 8 hour day.

    (Needless to say, you have also established payment of travel expenses, such as transportation, lodging and per diem))

    You have definitely established your cancellation terms. Your cancellation terms are very important, especially when there is travel involved, as you are setting aside several days for them. In general, for assignments involving travel, there is a percentage of your fee that will be paid depending on when the cancellation happens: before travel, or once you are already there.

    In this case, you are already there, and you are already in the court. They should pay you for the travel days, the full day you were in court (even if it was only 2 minutes), full days for the other reserved days accorrding to your ccancellation terms (mine are 2 working days) and x% of the rest of the reserved days you will not be working due to the cancellation (It is usually 50%) Plus your travel days-

    Actually, I believe the terms of cancellation are written in the agreement for federal interpreters when travelling. I will look of a copy of that and add it here.

  6. Garrett B. says:

    I would be as diplomatic as possible to avoid the relationship from going south at this phase and remind the contracting party of the terms stipulating minimum hours/days compensation, expenses to be invoiced, per diem, etc., which is all established in the written statement of work or contract, that they agreed to.

    If a formal signed statement of work or contract is not in place, I would point out that whatever was agreed to by email (if contracted in that manner) “constituted an unambiguous agreement on all material terms and therefore held a contract to exist.”
    (Source: https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/at-what-point-does-an-email-become-a-binding-contract-46423)

    If either of the above did not change the contracting party’s perspective, I would consider how much I value working with that language service provider/client and make a decision on potentially pursuing an alternative arrangement that both I and the other party could agree to.

    Ultimately, if I was feeling particularly salty and did not mind losing that source of work, I would follow Mike Monteiro’s tips in his seminal lecture on how to respond to someone refusing to pay. See it here (https://youtu.be/jVkLVRt6c1U?t=76); it truly is a gem. Remember: You have the power to fire a client as much as they do you.

    Thank you to our excellent colleague, Daniel Maciel, for sharing Mike’s video with me and others.

  7. Arunee Ponpradit Moir says:

    I agreed with those who refer to contract signed with an agency as an Independent Contract traveling Interpreter.
    The minimum payment on the 1st day and the last day of work. The policy of cancellation less than 24 hours notice etc.

  8. Abdus Samad says:

    Only a few Interpreting agencies have a fair and equitable cancellation policy. For fear of losing business or an account they would rather not insist on one. When you are an independent contractor you have to look out for yourself. I have to agree with Mr. Forstag that only a written stipulation protects you in such an event. As a wise man once said, the best insight is hindsight.

  9. Sylvia J. Andrade says:

    I always have a written agreement and charge both for expenses, including hotel and transportation if included, unless I get another assignment which I am able to do or there is an extreme reason for not doing so.. An extreme reason is just that– for instance, a family member of the client or a deponent becomes the victim of a crime of violence. (That happened once.) Wife of deponent died of Covid and son committed suicide. (Happened once.) I feel free, usually, to use my own discretion.

  10. The first step is to have a solid contract with your client. Here’s an excellent model from The ATA that you can download: https://www.atanet.org/career-education/business-strategies/contracts/#flipbook-df_15602/1/, This contract covers the basics. You can add or remove clauses as you choose. I would avoid Arbitration as an option for dispute resolution–it’s expensive. Instead choose a court that is convenient for you. Remember, you set the terms.
    If in the current situation you describe there’s not much you can do except to reason with your client. We live and learn.
    Good luck, Nick

  11. JANIS PALMA says:

    Ditto to everything said before. When you are an independent contractor you are a business (yes, you make a living doing this which means this is your sole-proprietorship business) so you need to think and act like one. Have a contract ready to send to a client before accepting any assignments. It does not need to be complicated: (1) your rates, including overtime; (2) your cancellation policy; (3) your travel fees when going beyond “X” number of miles outside of your office/home base, including overnight stays; (4) acceptable methods of payment; (5) when payment is due and what penalties, if any, the client will have to pay if late (i.e., payment not made by the due date on your contract.) Sign, date and have the client return a signed and dated copy to you.

  12. Patricia Argüello de Avila says:

    I will not move anywhere or do anything until I have a return email from my clients accepting my terms and conditions. I set those up very clearly.
    No matter how urgent a case.
    The more urgent the case, the more quickly they need to accept my Ts ans Cs.

  13. Helen Eby says:

    I would follow the fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me and never work with them again.

  14. Vicki Bermudez says:

    I agree with everything that’s already been said, but have one more thing to add. I have begun charging an upfront fee, if it’s a client I’ve never worked for. I frequently get requests from out-of-state agencies, and If I don’t know them from Adam, chances are, they are contacting interpreters all over the country. If they are not willing to agree to an upfront amount, which I set on an individual basis, then it’s not worth it to me.

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