Are Translators and Interpreters Part of the “Gig Economy?”

On August 12th, the California State Legislature held a committee hearing on a controversial bill known as “AB5.” The bill is an expansion of the groundbreaking California Supreme Court decision made last year, in which the courier service Dynamex was ruled to have misclassified its workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The Dynamex ruling was just one in a slew of recent cases concerned with the status of workers operating within the so-called ‘gig economy.’ Most gig economy workers – including those that work for Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Instacart, and TaskRabbit – are classified as independent contractors, meaning they are not guaranteed labor protections such as minimum wage, and they are denied employment benefits, including unemployment insurance, health care subsidies, and worker’s compensation.

Now the question is being posed: are translators and interpreters part of the ‘gig economy,’ or should they be exempted from the “AB5” legislation?

Looking at the Precedents

On July 12th, the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (CUIAB), an independent administrative judicial agency, overturned an earlier ruling on the work status of an interpreter at Interpreters Unlimited, a San Diego-based company.

The original case concerned an interpreter who had completed several assignments with the company before filing for unemployment benefits. The filing prompted the Employment Development Department (EDD) to conduct an audit, which concluded that the interpreter should in fact be classified as a regular employee of Interpreters Unlimited—and not as an independent contractor.

But the appeals board didn’t concur with the EDD’s classification. Judge James G. Queenan of the board described the services of interpreters at Interpreters Unlimited, as “sporadic, non-continuous and of short duration.” Additionally, he cited Interpreters Unlimited workers as holding “the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.” Interpreters could set their own rates; they could also choose to reject assignments. Thus, interpreters were deemed to be contractors, not employees.

Interpreters and Translators Seek Exemption

Under the proposed legislation of AB5, however, judge Queenan’s reasoning holds little water.

If passed, AB5 would require businesses to use the “ABC Test” in order to determine a worker’s status. According to the test, businesses can only hire someone as an independent contractor if they can prove that the worker is: a) free from the company’s control b) performing work that does not play a central role in the hirer’s business, and c) has an independent business in that industry. Under this test, many interpreters and translators could be classified as employees.

Among other groups, both the International Association of Conference Interpreters and the Association of Independent Judicial Interpreters in California have deemed their inclusion in the AB5 legislation erroneous. Both groups recognize that there are employers who classify interpreters as independent contractors and then wrongfully treat them like employees. But this represents a small minority of these industry’s workers, they argue. The majority “work successfully – and by choice – as independent contractors for a diverse portfolio of clients, from local school districts to medical clinics and from California state government to Silicon Valley tech giants. Not to mention the state and federal courts.”

The problem that will be posed to translators and interpreters if AB5 gets passed into law in its current form is twofold. First, language services companies looking to hire in California may opt to outsource to other states rather than take on the financial burden of employing California-based workers. Second, any California-based interpreter or translator that does not wish to be classified as an employee for every language services company they work for will be required to incorporate as a business.

Unknown Outcomes

At the August 12th hearing about the AB5 bill, translating and interpreting association representatives were allowed thirty seconds to add their input. Conference interpreter Michèle Stevens used her time to deliver a petition, which currently displays over 4,000 signatures of workers in the field. In the petition, translators and interpreters exert their stance, saying: “We are not the ‘gig economy’ workers AB5 is designed to protect.”

Currently, the fate of the AB5 bill remains on hold, as it makes its way to the California State Senate for a vote between August 30 and September 12.

ALTA Language Services provides comprehensive language services, including interpretation, translation, interpreter training, and more. Contact ALTA for more information on our services.

About the authors:
Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing fiction.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she now lives in Chicago.

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