New York Daily News
Translators contracted by city paid way below min
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.”