I never would have imagined when I started my career as a medical interpreter that I would be writing an article with a title like this, but here I am. It wasn’t too long after I began my career that I became acutely aware of scams in the translation world, such as the classic, “Oops, we overpaid you!” bait and switch. But truthfully, in the beginning I didn’t believe things like this really happened to interpreters. I’m here to say that they do, and I’m disheartened that, especially following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies taking advantage of interpreters appears to be on the rise. This includes agencies that some of us once considered to be reputable and trustworthy.
Your mind might jump to that scene at the beginning of the movie the Big Lebowski in which The DudeTM? gets his head repeatedly dunked into a toilet as a man interrogates him. “Where’s the money, Lebowski?” you may scream internally after you discover you’re being shorted on your pay, paid late, or not paid at all by an interpreting agency. But it’s important to keep your cool, not act rashly, and carefully consider your next steps before taking action.
Preparation is Key
If you’re not getting paid, it may be tempting to skip to the second half of this article that gets into tips on how to get your hard-earned money. However, I highly recommend reading the first half of this article with preventative tips because, in my experience, I’ve borne witness to the fact that many, if not most interpreters do not engage in these steps. There are actually some things that you should be regularly doing to protect yourself as a freelance interpreter. At best, if you’re not doing these things, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage when and if these things happen. At worst, you may be preventing yourself from even finding out if you’re getting paid correctly!
Or just continue reading these highly-recommended tips!
Know. Your. Worth.
You can’t know if you’re being offered fair terms and equal treatment when you enter into a contract with an agency if you don’t know what the standard rate expectations for the industry are for your:
e.g. qualified or certified, whether you hold a degree in a related field, years of experience
- Language pair(s)
- Interpreting discipline(s)
e.g. legal, medical, conference, educational, etc.
- Medium of interpretation
e.g. OPI (over-the-phone interpreting), VRI (video remote interpreting), RSI (remote simultaneous interpreting), on-site (sometimes referred to as OSI or F2f for face-to-face)
- Geographic location
Interpreters outside of the U.S. generally get paid significantly less (in my opinion, reprehensibly so), but they can and DO leverage rates equal to or exceeding mine with the same or greater qualifications
I get the question all the time: what should I be charging? As you can see with the sheer amount of variables to consider, it would be difficult for me to give anyone a straight answer unless I was familiar with rates for that particular combination.
Additionally you should be aware of other standards for your combination, such as minimum booking periods, parking/toll reimbursement policies, mileage reimbursement rates (and what the standard federal mileage rate is), cancellation policies, and potentially more depending upon the list of factors noted above.
Don’t sign a contract
until you read it. Completely.
Do not, under any circumstances, sign a contract with an interpreting agency unless you read it in its entirety, understand what it means, and are in agreement with the terms. Ideally, those terms should be in keeping with, or exceeding, the standard rates and other expectations for your role based on the details discussed in the previous section. I have borne witness some pretty egregious contract clauses, reneging on verbally-agreed upon rates, and overall just disturbingly vague contracts that are incredibly concerning that many interpreters sign without a second thought.
If you don’t like an interpreting contract clause, you can respond to the agency. I always double-check my contract for any discrepancies between what I was offered and what’s in writing in the contract. I often ask for clarification on things and it’s honestly not uncommon if the clarification is to my liking to ask the agency to put it in writing or include it in an amended version of the contract. You can, and I certainly have on more than one occasion, refuse to sign a contract for any reason, including but not limited to the agency refusing to provide written clarification for a poorly-worded or vague contract clause. To me, personally, that is a huge red flag, as I once had an agency ruthlessly exploit a vague clause about cancellations in a contract. Some mistakes are made in error, and again this is just my opinion, an agency worth my time will often appreciate my thoroughness and pointing out a mistake that could potentially cost them.
In most cases, the terms set out in your contract (unless legally unenforceable) are what both you and the interpreting agency are beholden to for all assignments you’ve completed for them in the past. You can certainly declare new terms for future assignments, or even enter into renegotiation of your contract, but the agency has realistically no obligation to agree to it, or even uphold your previous terms if you terminate a contract and try to start a new one. Generally the best and easiest time to negotiate a contract is the first time you set it up, at least in my experience.
Know your contracts & jot down important details
Oftentimes there are important details about contracts that we’d like to keep handy for informational purposes, such as the phone number for the agency and extension(s). But aside from information that you will likely need to reference often, there’s also information that will be invaluable in circumstances when you’re having payment issues, such as:
- What info you need to provide after a job to get paid
- How the agency calculates your time
- Payment schedule and other payment expectations
- Information about how mileage, tolls, and other fees are paid (if applicable)
- Method of pay and details you provided to the agency for payment (e.g. bank/routing numbers, address)
- Contact information of the specific person or department you need to address if there is a payment issue
I previously wrote an article about a neat little tool I like to use for this purpose, called the agency cheat sheet, which helps you keep the details of all the interpreting agencies you work with organized and accessible. I highly recommend keeping this information readily available in some way, shape, or form, in case any payment issues arise. This can take a lot of the stress out of sorting through documents and emails.
Learn how to keep the important info
from all the interpreting agencies
you work for organized & accessible…
So you’re not left feeling like you’re
scrambling to find a needle in a haystack!
Collect & store (appropriate) assignment details (appropriately)
It’s advisable to keep a log of your assignments, and any details pertinent to payment, as well as any issues that were encountered on the assignment. However, you want to strike a balance, making sure not to include anything you realistically don’t need, especially if storing that information incorrectly could potentially get you in trouble. For instance: if you are a medical interpreter, there’s little reason to store PHI (protected health information). Realistically interpreting assignment numbers, addresses of appointments, and dates/times are all the identifying information you need for that particular assignment. Storing PHI, especially in digital form, can open you up to all kinds of security risks. For on-site medical assignments I will typically keep the following data, if applicable:
- Assignment/reference number and name of agency
- Address of the assignment (as long as it is not a home visit, as the patient’s address would be considered PHI)
- Times (arrival, start, breaks, end, departure)
- Any incidents of note (e.g. if pt was seen without me before I arrived, refusal of service) & names of staff
Do not, I repeat: do not rely entirely on the interpreting agency to keep these records for you. They likely keep at least some of these details, but when it comes to payment issues and these details potentially coming to your rescue, having your own records can save your 🍑. I have some suggestions for tracking interpreting minutes, and I actually still use the same time-tracking app I mentioned in the article two years ago!
I had one particular assignment a few years ago in which the patient was seen before I even arrived, without an interpreter, despite the fact that I arrived 15 minutes before the appointment time the facility itself scheduled. Of course, I immediately call the agency, informed them of this, and the person told me they noted it in the system. I didn’t get paid for that assignment on the next two payments, so I reached out to the agency to find out why I wasn’t getting paid. The facility had apparently called the agency to try to accuse me of not servicing the assignment, and the agency suddenly didn’t have any of those notes that the person I spoke with supposedly took. Despite the fact that I couldn’t give them the name of the person at the agency I spoke with who supposedly noted it down (the one thing I failed to jot down!) my notes about the appointment jogged my memory, and I was able to explain the situation again, making sure to cite as much relevant information as possible. This was nearly 3 months after the incident in question, yet I was able to prove my case. I was paid in full for the assignment in my next payment.
So what can I do to get paid, then?
If you engage in any of the preparatory steps above, the next steps are going to be whole heck of a lot easier, I promise. Not only will it make sorting out the details less work-intensive, keeping stress levels under control (within reason!), even just a combination of some of these four steps will likely result in you catching the problem much much earlier, which often makes all the difference. Why? Well, how early you catch a payment issue (and how long payment issues go on for without being resolved) determines what you’re going to do about it.
📢 Important Disclaimer
Kelly (the author of this post) is not a lawyer and the information contained in this post is not designed to replace legal advice. Keep in mind that any actions that you choose to take based on the information on this page are taken at your own risk. It’s worth stating that as an independent contractor (freelancer), the interpreting agencies that you have contracts with can terminate your contract or stop sending you work for practically any reason at nearly any time, so keep this in mind if you are concerned with jeopardizing your relationship with the agency.
How late is your pay?
Not a lot of people know this, but my first job (before what my mom still likes to refer to as my first “real” job) was as a freelance web developer and graphic designer. I started in my teens even before I was out of high school, and I learned a LOT about how contracting works. I learned the hard way just how common it is for clients to pay late, and how important it is to set those expectations up front. However, interpreting is a little bit different, in that the AGENCY most often holds the reigns on the contract. Without a doubt I had significantly more leeway and autonomy as a web developer because I always wrote my own contracts!
While I hear some interpreters say things like, “You’re the contractor, you set the terms,” I also recognize that agencies are NOT accustomed to contract interpreters suggesting certain terms or amendments to their contracts, such as late payment policies. That being said, I’ve never asked to add such a clause. I just don’t feel like it’s unreasonable to believe that if you ask for certain things that are standard in other industries but aren’t in the interpreting world, you might get laughed out of the room. Clients incurring late fees if they’re less than 30 days late, which is something that was standard in the contract I created for clients to sign when I was a web developer, is just something that (at least as a medical interpreter) I don’t suspect is very common at all. I’ll talk a little bit more about late fees and the expectations relating to them in a bit, but for now I’m not really going to discuss them for pay being less than 30 days late.
So what can I do if payment is less than 30 days late? Should I do anything?
Yes! Absolutely! Especially if you normally get paid like clockwork by that particular agency, it could be an indication of an issue, and not always a bad or a malicious one, so it’s always worth it to reach out to the agency. In my experience, they’re likely going to tell you to wait and when to get back to them if the issue persists, but in some cases they may respond that other interpreters have had the same issue and they’re working on getting it resolved. It also starts a sort of “paper trail” if you’re corresponding via e-mail. That’s not to say you can’t have a paper trail if you jot down the number you called, who you spoke with, and a brief description of what you talked about. I also like to take screenshots of call logs.
If you don’t hear back from them, continue following up every 2-3 business days for a week or so. You may want to consider adding something like:
If payment is not received in full for the past-due amount within x business days, a late fee will be added. Late fees are assessed at [insert terms for late fees].See section on “if pay is over a month late” for more on assessing late fees.
It may also be worthwhile to add the total sum of the past-due amount if you choose to include the information above. If you still have no response, try to find another way to contact them and go from there. Consider reaching out to colleagues who work for the same agency and seeing if they have any problems themselves with payment and if they have any tips about who to reach out to.
If you haven’t been reaching out to the agency with any sort of regularity by this point, you’re already behind. If you’ve been contacting them every 2-3 business days up until this point, that strategy clearly isn’t working, so you can settle down to once a week, but make sure to keep detailed records of all your attempts to reach out (and their responses). If you haven’t been contacting them at all and pay is over a month late, consider going back to the previous section on “if pay is less than a month late” and looking at tips to establish a regular pattern of communication, even if it’s one-sided. Even if they don’t respond, I highly suggest to keep reaching out.
Once pay is a month late, to me this is like a magic number if you’ve already been reaching out to them. Even if you don’t have it outlined in your contract that there are late fees, even though the agency will likely not have any sort of legal obligation to pay such fees, I’ve had many interpreters suggest to me that sending an invoice for the past due amount along with charges for late fees can sometimes be the magic bullet that shows them you mean business. Listen, I can tell you from personal experience that I have been more knowledgeable about contract law than some agency owners or people from agencies in charge of billing/invoicing. I’m not even trying to toot my own horn here. I’m also not trying to screw anyone over or encourage anyone to take advantage of some “poor interpreting agency.” I’m just trying to get my colleagues get the pay they worked so hard for.
Of course, no one recommends charging an outrageous late fee. Your late fees have to be within reason. Generally speaking, 1 to 1.5% interest on the overdue amount per month seems to be considered reasonable. So, for instance, if an agency owes you $1000, a late fee at 1.5% would be $15 for every month it is late past the due date.
I recommend sending the invoice via mail, if possible, in addition to sending an e-mail with the invoice to the billing department or applicable party in charge of payments. This invoice should be itemized with a detailed breakdown of all the money they owe you with dates and assignment numbers, if applicable. If you’re sending via mail, certified mail (in the U.S.) requires a signature upon delivery and you get an official receipt that the letter was mailed. While it might be overkill to send certified at first, it might be a good idea to escalate to this if you need to keep sending invoices because they haven’t paid you. Upping the ante every month like this (within reason) is a good way to sort of “raise your voice.”
I personally really like the number 3. If I’ve been following all the steps here as outlined, I’d say after the third month of sending invoices, contacting them, and making sure to send a certified mail invoice at least once (again, if possible), it’s time to consider other avenues. You really need to bring out the big guns to show them you mean business.
The one thing that I really think is a must at this point, if you haven’t already done it, is to stop completing assignments for them, at least temporarily. Definitely reach out to them and let them know if you are scheduled for assignments and not planning on going to them, however. You can tell them that due to nonpayment you’ll not be servicing those assignments, but it really is a good idea to give them at least 24-48 hours’ notice because not only is this likely in your contract (you don’t need to stoop to their level, here!), but it will likely negatively affect the limited English proficient (LEP), D/deaf, or hard of hearing person you’re scheduled to interpret for.
Now, the following steps are all other possibilities (read as: optional, but encouraged) depending upon your situation. You can pick and choose, you can do one each month payment continues to be late, or you can do them all.
I’ve rated each action on a 🔥 scale to indicate the intensity of the action. If an agency is repeatedly engaging in these practices, or if many of your colleagues are reporting the same issues (especially if those issues seem to be recurring), it may yield better results for you to engage in a 🔥🔥🔥 action versus a 🔥 action. Bear in mind that the more you escalate your payment issues, the more likely it is that your ability to work for that agency as a contractor in the future may be jeopardized. As a contractor, an agency can realistically cut ties with you at any time for any reason they see fit.
🔥 Send a final notice/invoice with a due date
This is where I may say something like, “If payment (including late fees) are not received in full by [date], [action that will happen].” This creates a sense of urgency and lays out potential consequences.
🔥🔥 Leave honest reviews about the company
You can leave reviews on the company’s Google profile, the company’s Facebook page, GlassDoor, Indeed, or ProZ’s Blue Board. Try to stay away from entities like the BBB (Better Business Bureau), Consumer Affairs, or TrustPilot because their reviews are designed to be left by customers, not by contractors/employees, so your complaint may not even be posted. Your review must be honest and factually-based, otherwise it may be removed or might even get you in trouble legally if it names an individual. Also, you want to make sure to avoid sharing any proprietary company information that you could get in trouble for sharing. Be sure to share your personal experience with payment delay(s) and try to avoid sharing the experiences of others (perhaps encourage them to leave a review of their experiences instead).
🔥🔥🔥🔥 Pursue legal action against the agency
Remember when I said you needed to “bring out the big guns”? Well, this is probably one of the biggest steps you can take. Sometimes even just mentioning that you are considering this option can be effective, though! If you need to escalate to this level, I realistically can’t give you much advice because I’ve never had to do this myself, but a colleague suggested the following:
This is a non-profit organization that partners with the U.S. SBA (Small Business Administration). It offers mentorship opportunities for small business owners, as well as resources like courses and webinars. They even have an article called 8 Options When Your Clients Refuse to Pay You that’s much more succinct than this one (covering many of the same points), but it’s not going to be as specific to interpreting. If you are located in the United States, you can try to reach out to your local chapter for advice.
If you’re getting here and still wondering: okay Kelly, how do I get paid? Make sure you’ve expanded one of the little boxes after “How late is your pay?”
Connecting with Colleagues
I’ve mentioned at various points in this article to speak with your colleagues who contract with the same agency or agencies. This has helped me in so many ways, I’d have to write a whole separate article to list them all! However, it can be really difficult to get in touch given the nature of our contractor status. It’s not like we all share the same workplace or are listed on a company directory like many employees are. One of the best ways to get in touch with your colleagues is to participate in professional communities. A word of caution, though: be careful of what you post, because some information can potentially be used against you by employees, recruiters, and other contractors from the same agency who are members of those groups.
While that’s all I have for this article for now, please feel free to reach out or comment on this post if you have any additional thoughts or input. I will likely go back through and edit this article if people share information that will be useful to contract interpreters who are getting paid late, or not at all!