By Marisa Rueda Will
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that change is inevitable. Perhaps that is why Gabriela Siebach’s 2021 ATA Conference presentation, Maintaining a Career as a Language Professional: An Endless Journey, caused me to reflect on how staff interpreters have been forced to unexpectedly reevaluate their career trajectories as a result of the “new normal.” Gabriela started the session by asking how many attendees were freelancers vs. staff language professionals. I discovered I was only one of two or three staff employees.
My guess is that a year from now a record number of staff interpreters, who rarely considered leaving their place of employment prior to the pandemic, will be strongly considering it, or will have already made a change. According to CCHI’s 2016 Job Task Analysis, five years ago 88% of the respondents indicated that in-person was their primary healthcare interpreting modality. If the medical center where I work is any indication, this ratio is now closer to 60%. Since the in-house productivity data at my institution shows remote interpreters are 300% more productive than their in-person counterparts, I can’t imagine the administration ever making the switch back.
What does this mean for staff interpreters? First, it means video remote (VRI) and over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) are here to stay. Even if you were a 100% in-person interpreter before the pandemic and have been able to maintain that status, chances are high that remote interpreting is in your future. If you form part of the 45% of interpreters aged 51-60 or older on the aforementioned Job Task Analysis, the prospect of switching modalities probably isn’t a game changer. However, if you are in the other 55%, remote interpreting is on the horizon.
One of my colleagues put it well. A mutual friend had switched to translation about three years ago and missed interpreting for patients. My coworker told her that the job she remembered didn’t exist. It jarred me to hear it in those terms, but it nonetheless rang true. Within the last two years, I can count on one hand the number of times I encountered a long-term patient in-person, with whom I’d built up a special rapport over my 15-year career. The sudden increase in remote interpreting has started to translate into a disconnect between me and my patients.
Only time and research will tell how LEP patient’s access to healthcare will be affected by all the changes, but initial reports from a study coming out of Kaiser Permanente Northern California suggests that “once patients with LEP have video visit use experience, they are not different from patients without LEP in likelihood to reuse video visits.” Video visits offer advantages where in-person consultations are lacking. Instead of traveling great distances, patients can connect from the comfort of their homes. Patients who previously couldn’t afford a second opinion from a specialist on the opposite side of the country now have the option. Major medical centers that make language access for their remote clientele a priority may be more likely to attract patients from parts of the United States that were previously out of reach.
Meanwhile, staff interpreters used to working primarily in person will have to decide how the switch to remote affects their job satisfaction. In the article, Why Employees Stay, from the Harvard Business Review, the authors, Flowers and Hughes, explain that “employees tend to stay with a company until some force causes them to leave.” They go on to explain the findings of an ongoing study of 406 employees from three different companies suggesting if an employee does stay it is mainly due to “two relevant factors within the company and… two relevant factors outside the company.” Internally, the two biggest factors were job satisfaction and work environment. Externally, factors included the “employee’s perceived job opportunities in other institutions” and nonwork related issues, such as “financial responsibilities, family ties, friendships, and community relations.”
I asked Elidrenai Vazquez-Melendez, a human resources specialist for the School of Science and Technology in San Antonio, Texas, to weigh in on the situation. She shared that the pandemic has affected all industries, although some have adapted better than others. She cautions employees to consider the pros and cons before making a big career decision. She listed “room for advancement, company culture, company stability, flexibility, work environment, quality of life, and developing new relationships,” as possible advantages of making a switch. At the same time, she pointed out potential disadvantages like the stress of changing jobs and the risk of joining the unprecedentedly high number of unemployed individuals in the U.S. In other words, taking a risk may ultimately mean forfeiting a stable income for no income.
As I ponder her advice and the results of my research, I’m starting to wonder, what are the key components of a healthy and successful work environment for staff interpreters? To assist me in answering that question, I turn to a 2021 study on stress experienced by Polish court interpreters and translators. The author, Pawel Korpal, found the four most significant stressors were a fast delivery rate, no materials to prep before an assignment, poor working conditions (e.g., room acoustics), and no prep time. The top four potential stressors were the sense of responsibility for the interpreted or translated content, non-cooperative coworkers, the fear of making a mistake, and non-cooperative judicial authorities.
The current surge of employees changing careers, in the so-called era of the Great Resignation, makes me believe staff healthcare interpreters will also be affected. The floodgates of video remote interpreting have been opened and language access companies can draw seasoned, talented staff interpreters into their ranks. Based on the findings of the Polish study, organizations that invest in giving interpreters the materials and resources they need to be prepared for assignments and educate service users on how to work with interpreters as another member of the team have the potential to attract the cream of the crop.
Marisa Rueda Will graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Luther College in 2006. She has been a medical interpreter at a major U.S. medical center for over 15 years. She became a Certified Healthcare Interpreter-Spanish in 2012 and a Licensed Interpreter Trainer through Cross Cultural Communications in 2017. A member of the NCIHC Webinars Work Group, she will present at the 2022 ATA Conference on interpreting for infant and pregnancy loss. Marisa believes in education through storytelling. Her company, Tica Interpreter Training and Translations, specializes in educating interpreters about OB, mental health, and end-of-life encounters.
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Helen Eby says
Thanks for a thoughtful assessment of our situation.
Marisa Rueda Will says
You’re welcome, Helen. I look forward to hearing from other staff healthcare interpreters. Do they agree with my assessment or have a different outlook?