CSUN cuts benefits, offers raises to retain interpreters

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In an effort to retain services of its American Sign Language interpreters, the National Center on Deafness will increase the hourly salary of its interpreters and cut benefits to stave off the high number of interpreters leaving CSUN to work for private companies.

“We are optimistic,” said Terry Piper, vice president for Student Affairs, acknowledging that the change in pay will help the NCOD retain its interpreters.

There are two kinds of interpreters: academic year interpreters who have staff contracts, and interpreters who work on an hourly basis. The hourly interpreters do not have a full-time contract, and are in a pool of employees.

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

“We were having difficulty finding hourly interpreters to fill our classes,” Piper said.

Piper said the reason for the difficulty is due to the arrival of video relay services that private companies provide to the deaf and hard of hearing.

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

One of those companies is Sorenson Communications. Sorenson and CSUN established a working relationship in 2003.

“CSUN has a large percentage of deaf students and they have deaf faculty,” said Daphne Craft, western regional director of Sorenson Communications. “Sorenson provides a very important service to this large deaf and hard of hearing population, providing video relay service.”

“Sorenson VRS enables individuals to conduct free relay calls with their family, friends and business associates,” Craft said.

Individuals can use a Sorenson videophone, a television and a high-speed Internet connection to do so.

VRS allows a deaf caller to see an interpreter via television. The deaf caller then signs to the interpreter. The interpreter then contacts the hearing user via a phone line relaying the message from the deaf caller. From there, the hearing user will send a reply message to the interpreter, which the interpreter will sign to the deaf caller.

Craft said she believes Sorenson Communications is not taking CSUN’s interpreters, but that they are a company giving these interpreters another employment option.

“We’re a great company to work for,” Craft said.

Some deaf studies majors said they understand the situation that some of the interpreters are going through.

“Deaf studies majors need to make money just like everyone else, and just like it is with any other kind of profession, there will be the people who choose the jobs that will pay and there will be people that choose jobs that fulfill them on other levels, regardless of the pay,” said Nicole Pirog, sophomore deaf studies major.

Piper acknowledges that VRS is an important resource. He said he believes that this new technology can make for more of a complete conversation that would give opportunities to someone who is deaf.

Piper added that the person would then be able to speak to another person who is also deaf.

Piper said VRS created a problem in the way the service reduces the amount of ASL interpreters that would be available on-campus.

Piper said the number of ASL interpreters that provide services to deaf students must be increased at CSUN.

He added that the ability to hire interpreters was hindered by the fact that Sorenson Communications has one of their VRS centers in Burbank.

“Our competition is in our backyard,” Piper said.

In looking at the problem, the NCOD compared the average salaries of its interpreters with other similar jobs in the community.

Last year, hourly interpreters received vacation time, as well as sick leave, but in this upcoming year such benefits will be terminated because of an increase in hourly salary.

By giving a higher salary to their hourly interpreters, the NCOD said it can now give its interpreters a competitive salary similar to other working interpreters.

Deaf students have voiced their concerns regarding this problem through their organizations, Piper said.

“They are concerned with their quality of interpreters,” he said. “Interpreters have different ratings. Students want the highest ratings of proficiency.”

Piper said he believes the NCOD has been successful in making this situation work, but they have had to use interpreters who have less experience and proficiency.

The NCOD and the Deaf Studies Department are attempting to increase proficiency among students who are enrolled in the interpreting program, Piper said.

“I would think that the role of the interpreter is to be that link the deaf person needs to the hearing world,” Pirog said. “They are as close as any hearing person can get to being accepted into the deaf community because they have a genuine interest in deaf culture and have devoted their life to helping deaf people get along in a hearing world.”

Pirog said the one-on-one human contact associated with interpreting is still important, despite certain unknowns about the future of interpreting technology.

“For me, I love the personal contact that sign language offers, and would only choose a job that offered me that aspect of it,” she said. “I have no idea what the future holds for this developing technology, but one can only hope that it will not completely replace working with someone personally. That’s one of the great joys of sign language.”

John Barundia can be reached at city@sundial.csun.edu.