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AB 5 and the Misclassification Reality for California Interpreters
Contrary to popular belief, the world is not ending with the recent effective date of AB 5, although you might think so if you listen to owners of language interpreting agencies who do business here in California.
What has happened as of January 1, 2020, is that a law was passed that split California into two distinct classifications of working people:
Classification 1 Professions that require bona fide education, training and state approved testing and licensing requirements and
Classification 2 Everyone else.
The tightening of the misclassification rules was passed by the legislature, approved by the Governor, has been upheld in the courts and now will be enforced by the state (Employment Development Department, Franchise Tax Board, Labor Commissioner’s Office, Cal/OSHA, and Division of Workers’ Compensation to name a few).
But hold on! Isn’t Interpreting already a profession?
Not according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates professional licenses here in the state. Still not convinced? You can find out who California deems a professional by clicking on their booklet: https://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/dca_booklet.pdf.
Interpreters have been living in the gig world for more years than anyone can remember. They receive no state oversight, are not required to study for and pass a board exam, they have no license and thus, according to the state, they have no profession.
Most language agency owners who retain hundreds of freelancers on their contact lists love it just the way it was back in 2019. They don’t have to pay taxes nor insurance. They use interpreters any way they see fit, without any regard to workplace fairness, safety or employment law protections. They are not responsible for compensating interpreters according to California’s wage and hour laws (e.g., minimum wage, overtime, meal periods and rest breaks, etc.), nor can interpreters be protected by workplace safety laws, and retaliation laws that protect every California employee, but not independent contractors. Additionally, if an interpreter is an employee they can go to state agencies such as the Labor Commissioner’s Office to seek enforcement of these laws, whereas independent contractors must resolve their disputes or enforce their rights under their contracts through other means, such as retaining an expensive lawyer.
AB 5 seeks to compel California interpreting agencies to be more directly responsible to their workforce. Paying an interpreter as an employee is not the end of the world, just more complicated with the added responsibilities regulated by the state to ensure worker safety, and prohibit unfair labor practices endemic to the gig world.
By sharing the risks, and burdens, and extending the protections and benefits to full time, part time or on-demand employees, the highest-quality interpreter workforce can be protected and in turn provide life-saving language access services to the many millions of highly vulnerable and underserved Limited English Californians. It’s the least we can do to begin forming a true profession. For those California interpreting agencies interested in making the switch and sleeping better at night, here’s something to help you get started: https://www.dir.ca.gov/DIRNews/2019/Assembly-Bill-5.pdf