Editor’s Note: Deaf Vee Journal already contacted Convo for comments on their policy change for independent contractors and there has been no response. Below is an anonymously submitted opinion article on what several Convo interpreters are allegedly facing right now, which has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.
SETTING THE STAGE
The FCC successfully ran a pilot at-home program to process billable VRS minutes for providers that qualified for a waiver from 2017 to 2019. Due to the rapid devastation of COVID-19 across the globe which forced millions to work remotely, call volume ramped up at an unprecedented level. From a regulatory perspective, the FCC sets daily speed-of-answer requirements that providers were simply not able to maintain.
This challenge was addressed by the FCC first through waiving various regulations that previously governed the industry on March 16, 2020. This temporary waiver was most recently updated on August 26, 2020 which granted the longest extension to date, slated to end November 30, 2020.
This waiver removes the cap placed on the proportion of billable minutes processed by at-home Video Interpreters (VIs), versus on-site at a call center. For providers operating under permanent rules, this is traditionally capped at fifty percent.
The waiver also allows for VIs with fewer than 3 years of working experience as an interpreter to provide VRS interpreting from their home. Additionally, the requirement for virtual teaming functionality for at-home VIs is also lifted.
Due to the increase in call traffic levels, the shortage of VIs available to meet the demand fell drastically. The FCC eventually announced a temporary waiver to allow contracts between providers and interpreter agencies. This at-agency program employs remote interpreters not working for providers to process billable minutes. These interpreters are expressly a supplement, not replacing any VIs. Providers like Convo Relay petitioned the FCC for this additional waiver, along with the original waivers.
Meanwhile, the surges in call volume have continued to line the pockets of VRS providers. The current reimbursement rates providers are compensated at were determined for July 2019 through June 2021. Those providers racking up fewer than 500,000 minutes/month are reimbursed at $5.29/minute. For providers processing between 500,000-1,000,000 minutes/month, they are reimbursed at $4.82/minute.
If a provider were to bill for 300,000 minutes in the span of a month they would make a revenue of $1,587,000. If that same provider were to have an increase of 75% in call volume amidst the pandemic in August, they would be making upwards of $2,530,500 for 525,000 minutes. This demonstrates an increase of over 60% in revenue as more persons who use ASL on the phone become systemically dependent on the VRS industry.
BROKEN BODIES, BROKEN PROMISES
When Convo agreed to participate in the at-home program following the announcement of the waiver, a 24-hour period was opened for VIs to complete a survey to communicate their interest. However by late summer, only half of the VI staff was able to participate even though the previous percentage caps on calls being processed at-home were lifted. All other staff members who do not process billable minutes (HR, Technology, Sales, etc.) have been allowed to work remotely.
Hazard pay for those VIs still attending shifts in-person at a call center was addressed and in the same breath denied. Instead, the focus has been on utilizing current VIs who work on a monthly basis, and having them move up to commit to more regular, weekly hours. Shift differentials were not offered until mid-September in a last-ditch resort to stop hemorrhaging minutes.
There was a particular VI who was approved to join the first round of the at-home program and was not supplied with any equipment from Convo. Instead, they spent upwards of $2,000 on equipment to ensure stable employment. This VI works primarily as an independent contractor, but whose private business revenue was impacted 90% by shelter-in-place orders. To compensate, they worked full-time hours through Convo to supplement their income, even though they are only bound to a monthly minimum of hours. This VI continued to pick up 30+ hours a week for over 4 months until disenfranchised, when the only remaining benefit program for monthly VIs was suddenly cut and non-stop phone queues lead to untenable physical and cognitive exhaustion.
Many other VIs were denied the ability to work at-home outright. Some made accusations of age discrimination. There have been reports of VIs being refused to work from home, and due to their underlying health conditions were unable to meet quota to keep their employee status. There are some people that are still on unemployment benefits due to COVID-19 interpreting job shortages and losing their employment status with Convo hurt. Some of these VIs were asked to resign due to the fact that they were not able to meet their monthly requirement of hours worked for fear of exposure to COVID-19 at the call center.
The waivers have nearly expired multiple times before the FCC jumps in at the eleventh hour to extend deadlines. Even the remote environment is not exempt from dread and stress caused by a lingering threat of having to plan one’s life, stability, and safety on such a volatile process.
In May, June, and July, VIs were told that they were expected to return to their respective call centers as there were no plans in place to systematically rollback at-home VIs, only for Convo to have to take it back due to last-minute FCC extensions. And again in late August, VIs were instructed to return to the call center for the previous September 1 return date but to leave at-home equipment in place. There was no structure set at that time, just a return en masse due to speculation from management that waivers would not be extended. People with young children who have to juggle remote learning and childcare, or those caring for aging parents, or are seniors themself were faced with an unpredictable tomorrow. At least four interpreters have reported the same issues.
The VIs’ concerns hold water when you consider the conditions of call centers, traditionally infamous for being petri dishes. These call centers where VIs work do not have windows; rather, they are in dimly lit office cubicles spaced an arm’s reach away from one another. Due to the nature of VI work, they are constantly aspirating, and speaking as belligerently as any client may in order to provide functional equivalence. They cannot provide this service while wearing a mask or face-covering. There are no plexiglass dividers between stations. In no way does this lend itself toward slowing the spread of COVID-19.
What is more, VIs only have limited access to cleaning supplies. Only one wipe is granted per VI per shift to wipe down their desk, chair, whiteboard marker and eraser, bell, and cords. A pre-work questionnaire and temperature check station were mandated as the only preventative screening measure at the end of the summer.
It wasn’t until the last week of October that at-home VIs who hold a monthly position were met with an ultimatum, and the first solid attempt to prematurely rollback at-home VIs: to increase their weekly hours from monthly to nearly full-time, or be forced to return to the call center in order to maintain their monthly status. Some VIs were given as little as 5 days’ notice, even though the FCC waivers do not expire for another month.
Naturally, VIs expressed their concerns at this arbitrary adjustment with serious public health implications as COVID-19 continues to worsen all over the nation. Management was groomed to respond to such questions encouraging VIs to resign if they would not accept their terms, and to find comfort in being re-hired when they were ready. Upon reaching out to HR at the suggestion of management, they were referred back to their manager. Another VI was told that the cost of their call center outweighed the priority of VI safety, and could not justify office space lease expenses while letting VIs stay home.
Within 24 hours that ultimatum was rolled back. Instead of a set date, there continues to be a to-be-determined rollback window that can hit any time on the company’s terms.
As times get tougher, we only become more aware of how interdependent we are on one another. The Deaf ecosystem is based upon the premise that a community with shared values and culture can pave their own way and make contributions to the benefit of society. However, it seems that what once drew long-standing VIs to Convo (“Because we understand,” and “be YOU” campaigns) is no longer reflected in the treatment of their VIs. Deaf culture has been co-opted and mutated to conform to corporate American interests. If this isn’t being run for us and by us any longer, then who are they and how did we get here?