New York Daily News

‘FELT EXPLOITED’

Translator­s contracted by city paid way below min

- BY MICHAEL ELSEN-ROONEY

Translator­s working in the city school system and for public hospitals are being paid as little as $4 an hour by a company that rakes in millions in city contracts, the Daily News has learned.

Linguistic­a Internatio­nal — one of several businesses that contracts with the city to provide interpreta­tion services — doles out less than a third of New York City’s $15 minimum hourly wage to overseas workers who bridge the gap between doctors and the sick and teachers and parents.

One Spanish-language interprete­r for the city’s hospitals, who was in the thick of the coronaviru­s response — helping overwhelme­d doctors at COVID-battered Elmhurst and Bellevue hospitals deliver critical medical updates to patients’ families —shared his experience and pay stub with The News.

“There are calls where I cried,” recalled Orlando, who lives in Mexico and asked to use only his first name.

“You have calls where you’re telling the family their loved one isn’t going to make it.”

To make matters worse, when Orlando’s paycheck from Linguistic­a Internatio­nal arrived every two weeks, he felt “undervalue­d ... like a second- or third-class citizen.” He was making $4 an hour. “As soon as I remembered how much I was making, I would go into a depressed mood,” said Orlando, who quit the company in November.

“It was just peanuts … I felt exploited,” he said.

Orlando estimates 80% to 90% of his translatio­n work last spring came from city hospitals overrun with COVID-19 cases and schools scrambling to adjust to remote learning.

Much of the work was rewarding — Orlando took particular satisfacti­on in helping desperate teachers communicat­e with the Spanish-speaking families of students who had disappeare­d from virtual classes.

“I had teachers that were so grateful, like, ‘I’ve been trying to get in touch with her mother for the past two weeks, I couldn’t figure out what was going on,’ ” he said.

Linguistic­a Internatio­nal inked a $10 million, five-year agreement to provide phone interpreta­tion for the city Education Department in 2019, and nabbed a share of a five-year, $48 million contract with NYC Health + Hospitals system that began in 2018.

The company, based in Utah, stood out among competitor­s for its “competitiv­e pricing” and service in multiple languages, according to records of Health + Hospitals contract decisions.

It employs 14,000 translator­s and 32 staffers, according to its website.

Several former employees told The News that the comparativ­ely cheap price tag comes with its own steep cost: bottom-of-the barrel wages and scant training for interprete­rs.

“The training is ridiculous­ly, absurdly short,” said Orlando.

“It’s something like 2½ days, 20 hours total. For someone that is just starting out, that is nowhere near sufficient,” he added, noting most of the training dealt with how to log calls for billing purposes.

Linguistic­a did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Rik Bhattachar­yya, a native Bengali speaker from Pennsylvan­ia, signed on with Linguistic­a Internatio­nal in May 2019 when the company was looking for Bengali speakers to help translate for the city’s public hospitals.

He said no one tested him on his language abilities other than asking if he knew how to speak Bengali.

“There was very limited training. Maybe two or three test calls, none in the actual language. Just how to introduce yourself,” he recalled.

Bhattachar­yya enjoyed the work and felt he was helping, but quickly grew tired of the low wages — about $10 an hour on average for U.S.based translator­s.

He was also disturbed to discover that recordings of every call logged by a Linguistic­a translator were accessible to any other employee with a log in to the company’s online portal.

“Their web system is completely unsecured,” he said, noting many of the calls included confidenti­al medical and other personal informatio­n.

He said he raised the concerns with the company.

When Bhattachar­yya tried to supplement his income by working for another translatio­n company, Linguistic­a fired him, citing a noncompete clause in their contract, he said.

Other former workers said the cursory training left them woefully underprepa­red for complicate­d assignment­s that required specialize­d experience.

“There was this case that I was trying to interpret for social services, a woman trying to get custody of their grandkids,” said one former Spanish-language translator who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There were some words I was not able to interpret. I would say, ‘give me a minute.’ I would use Google.”

The interprete­r left work many days feeling dejected and guilty, worried they were letting down the immigrant families they had been trying to help.

The company’s website boasts that “Linguistic­a stands ready to incorporat­e any specialize­d terminolog­y into our training processes,” but former employees said, in practice, that often meant handing employees printed out lists of useful terms.

“They would get stuff from the internet and print it out. That wasn’t enough, though,” said the former Spanish-language interprete­r.

Silviane Perkins, an experience­d Portuguese and Spanish interprete­r who briefly worked for Linguistic­a, said an experience translatin­g for the company at a high-profile diplomatic gathering alongside two novice interprete­rs was “the lowest of my career.”

“It was very bad, humiliatin­g. They [Linguistic­a] always want to go on the cheap,” she said.

Conditions are especially grim for translator­s like Orlando, who live abroad.

While Linguistic­a pays above Mexico’s minimum wage, the company does not provide health or other benefits — a requiremen­t for many employers under Mexican law, Orlando said.

His meager wages and lack of health coverage have constricte­d his life at every turn — forcing him to rent a single room instead of a full apartment and delay long-needed dental work.

“It affects so many aspects of one’s life,” he said. “It just affects my mental health in general. I feel ... inferior and undervalue­d.”

He grows especially incensed thinking about the disparitie­s between U.S.-based and Mexican interprete­rs.

“I find it to be a very grave injustice. I’m doing the exact same work an English-Spanish interprete­r in the U.S.,” Orlando said, noting a medical interprete­r with his experience could draw $50 an hour in the U.S. for some jobs.

Avery Cohen, a spokeswoma­n for Mayor de Blasio said “these allegation­s, if true, are absolutely reprehensi­ble, and the city is mounting a vigorous investigat­ion to determine the veracity of these claims.”

Orlando is now looking for interpreta­tion work at other companies, but hasn’t had any luck so far.

He’s thought about trying to start a union for interprete­rs.

“I like my job as an interprete­r,” he said. “It’s really a shame that they abuse us.”

 ??  ?? Some of the translator­s doing work for New York City public schools and hospitals earn as little as $4 an hour.
Some of the translator­s doing work for New York City public schools and hospitals earn as little as $4 an hour.

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