In an article for nwLaborPress.org called "Medical interpreters unite," Don McIntosh explains this watershed moment: “The State of Oregon on April 23 recognized a union for as many as 500 medical interpreters who translate for Medicaid patients" (1).
As independent contractors, Oregon interpreters have long been unable to unionize. This year, however, Oregon AFSCME (one of the largest member-driven unions in the state) helped pass HB 2231—which allows medical interpreters to unionize, influencing wages, paid time off, fair scheduling, affordable healthcare, and more.
Fig.1. From Oregon Interpreters in Action; pamphlet accessible at: http://interpretersinaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Two-Pager.pdf
These efforts have been years in the making in Oregon. In neighboring Washington State—considered by some to be a model for freelance language professionals countrywide—medical interpreters "recently achieved major improvements through a similar process" (1). Today, medical interpreters in Washington State can earn about $42 per hour, compared to $18-25 for their counterparts in Oregon.
A 2018 post in the ATA Interpreters Division blog—“Washington State: Leading the Way for Professional Interpreters” (2)—explains the “model”:
In the past, Washington paid interpreters through language companies that retained some 40% of the money the state paid for their services. But since 2010, Washington interpreters have seen a significant wage increase and, as many attest, an improvement to the quality of their work and life. In 2010, a state bill “granted freelance interpreters unionization rights for appointments paid by two Washington State agencies, DSHS and HCA” and then, in 2011, “a provision in the state budget created a new procurement model for interpreting services.” As a result, the aforementioned language companies now keep less than 15% of what the state spends in interpreting services. (2)
The evolving situation in Washington State is what Dennis Eagle, WFSE/AFSCME legislative and political action director, calls a win-win: “This bill makes our procurement process more cost-efficient and effective, lowering costs for taxpayers — increasing pay for interpreters” (3).
While the passage of HB 2231 in Oregon State may only be one step in a long and complex process (complete with contract negotiations), many newly unionized interpreters in Oregon are enthusiastic about what looks to them like a more just and equitable future.
According to Maria Fiallos, a medical interpreter for Spanish speakers: “[we] have nowhere to go but up” (1).