What Assembly Bill 5 Means for Linguists

by Morgan Carmody

On Sept 18th, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5 (CA AB 5) into law which will take effect in January. The new California state law reclassifies a large number of independent contractors as employees, making them entitled to labor protections, such as minimum wage and unemployment benefits. While AB 5 was written with companies like Uber in mind, the translation and interpreting industry has spoken out in regards to how this will affect a large number of professional linguists working in the field. Despite this opposition, the bill was passed without any sort of exemption for translators and interpreters. Both the American Translators Association (ATA) and the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) have both spoken out against the law, highlighting the need for an exemption.  

The author of the bill, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, has said AB5 would punish businesses that have tried to bend the rules in the past in regards to worker classification. However as the AIIC also points out, “Through our profession’s long history in the United States and abroad, the independent contractor status of conference interpreters has been shown to work.” There are exemptions for other professions, such as real estate agents, hairstylists and barbers, doctors, dentist and lawyers. But the bill was passed with no exemption for linguists. As the ATA points out in their statement, “Without an exemption, this bill would unduly lump together these independent professionals with individual workers who do not make a deliberate choice to provide freelance services.”

Michael Ferreira, president of the California Federation of Interpreters Local 39000 and a supporter of AB5, highlighted to the Los Angeles Times, “many interpreters are misclassified as independent contractors for large national translation companies and have no control over their wages or working conditions.” He continued, “They work solo for hours without breaks, when best practices require team interpretation, with switches about every half-hour.” 

While some like Ferreira, see this as a step in the right direction for individual worker protections and for allowing best practices to prevail, many more in the industry seem concerned with how this will affect the industry as a whole. This seems to essentially ban how many translation companies conduct business currently. The ATA points out that “few language service providers in our industry have sufficient work to hire individual translators and interpreters as employees for every language on the market…with the current wording of AB5, those companies would have to work with translators and interpreters based outside of California, thereby hurting the very people this bill has proposed to help as well as potentially limiting language access for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Individuals living in California.”

This is true – it would be astronomically expensive for a translation agency of any size to have to hire translators for every language they work with. Further, these companies usually look for linguist that specialize in a field, so specialist vocabulary is translated correctly. In practice, even though a translator may work wonderfully on medical texts, a translation company may still need to hire another linguist in the same language pairing who has more familiarity with financial documents. As the AIIC mentioned, this model of using databases of freelance, independent contractors has worked successfully for many years. Using freelancers allow translation companies to work with a database of linguists when the need for their languages and specialties arises. This allows for happy customers in that they have a “one-stop-shop” for all languages. While this idea of a “one-stop-shop” is relatively new in the language services industry it has helped fuel the large growth we’ve seen over the past 20 years. Without an exemption and the current wording of the bill, many in the language services industry are fearful that the growth of the translation industry will stall and, ultimately, hurt the linguists this was designed to protect.

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