CSUN interpreters receive pay raise, but lose benefits

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Hourly interpreters received a 29 percent increase in hourly salary this semester in an attempt by the university to retain their services, but at the expense of benefits, primarily vacation time and sick leave, which have been cut.

“We’re more competitive now with the implementation,” said Gary Sanderson, interim director for the National Center on Deafness, of the salary of hourly interpreters. Hourly interpreters who use American Sign Language were able to receive vacation time last year, as well as sick leave.

The changes were implemented in an attempt to retain the services of hourly interpreters who had left or were considering leaving to work with a private company, primarily those that provide Video Relay Services, such as Sorenson Communications.

Last year, the NCOD had difficulty retaining services from several of its interpreters.

“We were having difficulty finding hourly interpreters to fill our classes,” said Terry Piper, vice president for Student Affairs at CSUN, in September. The reason for the difficulty, Piper said, was the arrival of Video Relay Services, which provides an interpreting-based video link between the deaf or hard of hearing and individuals trying to communicate with them.

“These private companies pay hourly interpreters a higher salary, taking away the pool of interpreters,” he said.

According to Sanderson, hourly interpreters could be paid starting from $18.25 to possibly more than $56 an hour with the recent 29 percent increase in salary. Hourly interpreters do not have a full-time contract, and are in a pool of employees. He said 84 hourly interpreters currently work with NCOD.

“We haven’t lost people,” said Sanderson in regards to the hourly interpreters who work at the university this semester. “Word is getting out. More people are looking at what we offer and see that it is a viable alternative.”

Deborah Williams, an hourly interpreter working at CSUN, said she is satisfied with the increased pay, but is not happy with the changes made to benefits.

“I think this increase is a good thing, but I do not think our benefits should have been removed to accomplish it,” Williams said. “I have another full-time job for medical benefits, so I am not depending on the removed sick and vacation pay, but I did not receive a buyout check for my sick time I had saved up prior to the changeover.”

For Art Caplan, another hourly interpreter at CSUN, the change of pay upset him because the move will now cost him hundreds of dollars this semester alone, as well as reduce his future retirement pay for the rest of his life, he said.

“Human Resources informed me that the safety net of well over 500 hours of sick pay I have earned in the last 15 years is simply erased from the books,” Caplan said.

Those 500 hours of sick pay comes out to $14,000, he said.

Williams said she believes the interpreters who left CSUN partly because of low pay or the lure of VRS-based private sector are worth more than the university was paying them.

“I think (the interpreters) have families to support and CSUN was not cutting it,” Williams said. “CSUN is fine for young interpreters still in school or people working for supplemental income. CSUN is also an excellent training ground, so interpreters here work themselves into better jobs.”

Even though Robin Bowen is not affected by the change of pay because she is an academic year interpreter – there are academic year interpreters and hourly interpreters employed by CSUN – she considered working with a VRS company in the past.

“The pay at VRS companies is substantially higher for certified interpreters,” she said.

Bowen said she believes the environment and type of work at a VRS company differs significantly from the atmosphere at a university.

“I enjoy working in the academic environment much more than other environments I could be working in,” she said. “The difference in pay is tempting, but VRS wouldn’t provide the same kind of challenges and stimulation.”

Like Bowen, Williams said she feels she is more suitable to work in an academic environment as an interpreter rather than working through VRS.

“I have not thought about VRS because I do not like the idea of interpreting in front of a computer screen all day,” she said. “I like interpreting because of the human interaction, and still more so for the incidental learning opportunities it provides.”

Bowen said that there was an interpreter “crisis” prior to VRS.

“VRS has just put a strain on an already strained system,” she said. “My hope is that services like VRS bring the profession to the level of recognition that it should be, and that compensation be commensurate with the skill level needed for the job.”

According to Bowen, once that occurs, CSUN will have trouble keeping skilled interpreters from leaving the university for VRS and other places that provide a wage that an individual can raise a family on.

Bowen said a person cannot claim an individual is in the wrong for choosing to leave a place due to its inability to pay a competitive wage.

“Many of (the interpreters) still work a class or two on campus, so they didn’t completely abandon ship,” she said.

According to Dave Parkinson, Sorenson Media spokesperson, a company that uses VRS, an average interpreter spends only about 20 percent of his or her time at a VRS station, thereby enabling them to also do interpreting work in such places as CSUN.

Sanderson from the National Center on Deafness said he does not believe VRS was the primary reason why interpreters left CSUN.

He said interpreters have left for different reasons, such as maternity leave to interpreters just looking for different career options. He said he feels that people use Sorenson as a reason for the shortage, but said that is not necessarily the case, and acknowledges that the NCOD and Sorenson have a strong working relationship with one another.

As of now, Sanderson said he would love to have interpreters bring extra hours and have flexibility with their schedule.

“I’ve always said we can always use more interpreters,” he said.

John Barundia can be reached at jcb44123@csun.edu.