The vast majority of interpreters I know are self-employed. We pay our own taxes, including double Social Security. We buy our own insurance, be it life, health, or disability – or more commonly, go without. We take time off without pay for illness and vacations, and have unpaid holidays. We spend quite a bit of our “time off” scheduling, billing, doing our taxes, and otherwise documenting our work. Most of us spend at least part of the time wondering if it is “worth it.” We worry about getting enough work, and sometimes after we get work, it is taken away. Most courts have a 24-hour cancellation policy. We have tenuous economies. But we cling to the hourly pay rate, and tell ourselves we cannot “make that much” elsewhere.
The word on the street is that the self-employed interpreter makes twice as much (per hour) but that is only part of the story. We can only get an average of 20 paid hours a week. Probably another ten hours of that week is spent in taking calls, answering emails, scheduling, billing, bookkeeping, and working on taxes. Another five more might be additional travel to a second location within a work day, and a few more hours every week are spent waiting without pay between paid jobs. I don’t know how many hours that makes, but in some weeks, it sure feels like at least 40 of not more.
Employed interpreters get around half as much per hour. But of the 40 hours paid, she gets half an hour a day in paid breaks, so now it is 37.5 hours. She is allowed to use her workday to do all her logging and documentation for her interpreting gigs, so that saves her 5 to 10 hours a week at home. She is paid throughout the day for 8 hours whether traveling between locations, waiting, working on written translations, making reminder calls, standing by, or interpreting. When she is off the clock, she is not working. Whenever she is at work, she is on the clock. She doesn’t come home to more work. But it’s half the pay! Or is it?
What else comes with employment? At one major area hospital, the employer pays an astounding $10,000 a year toward employee health insurance. and the employee pays a nominal $120. Yes, I wrote $120 per year for excellent insurance coverage. The hospital also provides life and disability insurance which would cost at least $7,500 on the street . They pay for an annual bus pass worth $1,200. They subsidize vision and dental coverage worth another $3,000. They pay around $5,000 a year into a retirement savings plan. They provide two weeks paid holidays, two weeks paid vacation, with a value of around another $6,000 a year. They pay the employer’s half of Social Security tax, which is around another $4,000 a year. Oh, and a little over $5,000 a year for tuition coverage if you’d like to take some classes.
That adds up to close to $50,000 in added benefits that self-employed people either pay for out of pocket or simply go without. One area hospital actually allows gym access for a nominal fee, and allows a free visit with a physiologist to set up a routine. They offer an employee assistance program that gives free counseling and other support. And they subsidize a myriad of other programs including legal insurance, ID theft coverage, discounted home and car insurance, and even pet insurance.
These are the benefits without even taking into account the “safety net” of actually HAVING things like life insurance, health insurance, disability coverage, and sick leave. Or the security of knowing that as long as I am doing a good job, I will have a job. And if I do make mistakes or make someone unhappy, there would be a process in place with meetings and warnings.
Interpreters literally live from hourly or daily job, or weeklong trial, to the next. They literally have a guaranteed job for the next day only, as the standard is a 24-hour cancellation policy. At a “real” job, you will never get that call where you are told, hey, we love your work, but we changed our mind and we are taking away the hours we have promised you over the next three months. We only have to give you 24 hours notice, so you get zero pay for setting aside all those days for us and turning down other work.
Yes of course, employment is not a lifetime guarantee. Employees can and do get laid off. But then they can get unemployment, which we who are self-employed are not eligible for. And if I am injured at my work, I am covered by Labor and Industries workers compensation as an employee. As a contractor, I am out of luck.
So yes, the gross hourly pay is double. But when all these moving parts are set out into tables and cross-compared, what used to look like double pay turns out to be more like half pay. Food for thought, if you are thinking about getting a “real job”.