I am in my thirtieth year as a sign language interpreter. What I do is bridge the communication gap between a Deaf person and a hearing person. I interpret for Deaf people in all walks of life and in all sorts of situations, from good to horrible. Helping people help themselves in legal, medical and educational arenas, for emotional, life-and-death and deeply personal issues, and in communicating with family, friends, neighbors and schools. For the last 10 years, I have worked in the VRS industry. [Video Relay Service (VRS) is funded by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).] In VRS, Interpreters (known as VIs–video interpreters) are connected to a Deaf person through videophone and wear a headset to interpret calls between a person who uses sign language to communicate and a hearing person. I loved the work for many reasons except for one thing: the VRS industry is watering down the interpreting role/profession by putting the emphasis on customer service and treating us as such. Not as the professionals that we are.
Because the burnout rate in customer service is fairly high, I was always looking for ways to boost morale at work. When my regional director asked me to be in charge of the craft table, I accepted with no hesitation. I had been feeling that our center needed the “VI handprint”. I mentioned that a few times to management. So being in charge of a “craft table” at work was going to be a great venue for helping to boost morale.
One of the projects I undertook was to create a photo wall. I titled the wall: “The Nicest Thing a Caller Ever Said to Me…” I took pictures of our staff, posted their pictures on cards. I asked them write on their cards the nicest thing a caller ever told them. There were so many great comments! One day when a coworker was getting down on herself, I said to her “hey hey! What does your card say on the wall??” She stopped for a second and told me what the compliment was on her card. I looked at her and I said “And that’s what you carry with you today. Keep that in your mind….”
VRS is such challenging and draining work. I was looking for a way to have something serve as a reminder that even when times feel tough, we are tougher. Another example of my efforts is I brought in pre-cut pieces of fabric. I asked coworkers to write their favorite quote, perhaps a quote that got them through a rough time in their lives. I took all their quotes and sewed them together, making four quilt hangings. To hang on our wall at work.
I believed I was a good influence at work. I was led to believe my contribution to the workplace was a positive one. My regional director told me on two separate occasions that I was an informal leader. He said it with a smile so I assumed it was a compliment. I felt comfortable in my role at work.
And then one day, the regional director called me into a meeting. Said I had been observed making some comments that affected people’s ability to feel safe at work.
I was suspended and later terminated for “creating a hostile work environment”.
(Insert jaw hitting the floor here.)
My comments were: “If people continue to log in at 90% or higher for long shifts….that will cause the company to raise the bar!” We had people logging in at 94% for a 10 hour shift. 97% for an 8 hour shift. ETC. In that meeting with HR and my regional director I expressed to them that my comments were based on my own fear. . I was afraid for my own health and my own inability to keep up with the “90 percenters”, should the company see a trend and decide to raise the bar……again.
I know I was heading toward burnout. No doubt. But my comments could not have possibly made the work environment hostile. . Not when I’m running around trying to boost morale. Not when I was setting up taco bars for lunch, bringing in my own tri-tip slow cooked in the crockpot, smelling up the entire center and making it feel like a home cooked meal was about ready to be served. I couldn’t have been creating a hostile work environment when I was setting up an ice cream bar for my supervisor’s birthday, bringing in four different types of ice cream, waffle bowls and arranging for some friends to bring toppings. I couldn’t have been creating a hostile work environment while I was crocheting lap blankets for our interpreters on cold days. I couldn’t have been creating a hostile work environment when I was sitting with the Vice President of operations asking her, “What can I do to make Long Beach happy?” I went to her and told her there’s a disconnect in LB. And how can I make it better. Was there something I can do?
“Creating a hostile work environment” ??
My fear of the company raising the bar was based on my inability to keep up with those who were staying logged in for more than 90%. I made my concerns known to my Regional Director and my supervisor. I emailed asking how staying logged in 94% for a ten hour shift was conducive to the health and well being of the interpreter? If those were considered hostile comments, wouldn’t he have at least responded to the email? (I never got a response to that question). I was not hiding my concern. If they knew what my concern was, why did they not tell me this was something I needed to keep off the floor? Or out of the break room? Why wasn’t I talked to?
Instead someone overheard my conversation and reported that they were afraid to do their job. Someone reported that they felt “unsafe”. When HR told me that I made someone feel “unsafe”….I broke down in tears. I loved everyone there. It broke my heart to know I made someone feel unsafe. And while that was not my intention, there’s a saying that goes “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
There were other things they said I did, however they did not inform me to my face of these other accusations. They kept it among themselves. But I was told, I believe, by accident. And I will never betray those who may have misspoken. Even though they betrayed me. I will not even that score. Because it would not feel right. I was told I had prevented people from getting a team interpreter when requested. Lies.
I have no legal claim against the company. This is an “at-will” state. They could have fired me for any reason. If they didn’t like the way my perfume smelled, they could have let me go. I am not planning on foolishly filing anything against them. I have my own beliefs on why I was fired. Which I will not share here. I do not want to be accused of slander. If I can ever find proof of it— I have a case. However, at this moment in time…..no case. And that’s okay.
They did, however, offer me $10,000. I was offered that money by my recent employer to NOT tell you about my experience with them, working as a sign language interpreter. But I’m going to tell you anyway! To hell with “Hush Money”! I was fired by a major Video Relay Service for trying to help my coworkers, for trying to oppose abusive employment practices and ultimately, I believe, for arguing in favor of a union organizing effort (an effort I initially opposed when I still trusted my employer.) And when I was suddenly fired, they (a company intended to help communication) simply offered to pay me (a communications facilitator) ten thousand dollars to remain silent. Perhaps they thought I would be afraid for my career, that for a pot of money I would keep mum about my experience with them, that they could buy my silence with money? Their “offer” also included a clause that would prevent me from ever working for them or any “affiliate” of thiers, whatever that meant, doubtless an inclusive term. Further, if I ever disclosed anything about my work there, including my “deal” for silence, I would have to pay back the “shhhhhhh money”, plus interest!!!!! All for the amazing price of $10k.
It is more important for me to let my fellow interpreters know what can happen without protection.
Speaking of protection….
In 2012 the union was trying to get organized and set up in Long Beach. I am the employee who walked around with a petition to keep the union from coming in. I was the employee who wanted to give the company six months, as asked. We were asked to give the company six months for them to make a good faith effort.
(Public Disclaimer: I sincerely regret passing the petition around to keep the union out. It has been one of my biggest mistakes in life.)
In that six months plus, we had our texting from the floor privilege taken away. We were no longer allowed to eat or store food on the floor. We were told we couldn’t even have a protein bar in our purse. (Seriously!). We were told only active teaming was allowed. Meaning when we teamed and had to run to the bathroom, we had to log out. (And literally RUN to the bathroom). They were becoming very strict. All of our flexibility was being stripped away little by little. We could not listen to music on the floor, however management COULD play music. We were told in March 2013 we would finally get internet in our stations. (That didn’t happen until May 2014). There was a “green line” implemented; meaning if we did not hit a percentage that was above company expectations, we fell below a green line. It was very discouraging when I exceeded company expectations to be below a green line and to not make it into the “safe zone”. It’s all about the numbers.
Why else would employees be written up for an 87%–90% log in average? Because they didn’t bring enough billable minutes in. My interpretation of that write up is: “Thank you for sitting at your station for 90% of your shift. You still didn’t process enough billable minutes. Therefore, we are issuing you a “coaching”. Consider this your first warning. Go on back to work now. Oh, and we appreciate you….” I’m just kidding. I don’t think they said “we appreciate you…”
I was becoming more and more discouraged by the day. And I asked myself almost on a daily basis: why am I here? Why can I not walk away?
I could not find any good reason to walk away from a job that provided me health insurance. I could not bring myself to walk away from a job that offered several perks to its full time employees.
RID dues paid
Gym membership reimbursement
Three weeks of Paid Time Off
A chance to earn some ceu’s.
Ability to work a holiday and get extra pay
Option to do community assignments
Who would walk away from that? I was getting paid much less than I make working freelance in the community. And yet–I couldn’t walk away. My regional director asked me why I wasn’t off in in search of “greener pastures”. (He knew I was halfway miserable). And I told him “You mean why am I still here? Because my friends are here and the people I work with are the best. THEY make my job worth it….”
And that’s why I never walked away.
Am I going to sit here and say “I miss my job”? Uh…no. Because I don’t. And I see now that God has done for me what I wouldn’t do for myself. I was not happy and asked myself quite frequently “why am I here?” The universe heard me and cleared a path for me. It did not happen exactly the way I wanted it to happen….but a path was cleared. If this management team had sat me down and said “Look….we know you are miserable here. But you’re bringing people down. Either you get on board or you’re out….” THAT would have been the humane way to deal with the employees they are depressing and hurting. I wish management had sat me down and said “Look….we recognize everything you’ve done and everything you’ve given to this company but you don’t seem happy here. And we only want happy people working for us. Maybe it’s time to part ways…?”
Not: “You’ve created a hostile work environment. We are putting you on administrative leave without pay, your email has been shut down, and your key card is deactivated. We would like you to gather your things and leave the premises. You will not be allowed back in the center….” My world started to tilt at that moment.
Wow. Had I scared someone that much with my comment?
I left the center without speaking to anyone. I drove about a block and had to pull over in a residential neighborhood. I sat there for three hours. Crying. And I believe my car was running the entire time. I felt paralyzed. I could not drive home. Home was only 7 miles away. But I couldn’t move.
The next day I began freelancing. I put myself back out in the community and even by the very next day I knew this would be a blessing in disguise. Thank God my reputation in the community speaks loudly for me. Thank God people know me and do not believe for one second the alleged environment they said I was creating. People from work reached out to me. Texts, emails, phone calls. They couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it either.
Do those that reached out to me have any idea how much they speeded up the healing process? In this major unexpected life change—they offered me a piece of their foundation to lean on. This is why I will always say–the people I worked with were awesome. The best.
Yes, even the one(s) who reported me.
Public Disclaimer: As much as I was heading toward burnout–callers never knew how I felt about my job. Several times callers would ask me: “do you like VRS?” My answer: “I love it!”
So there is my story. If you are working for a non-union center….get unionized. Otherwise you are NOT protected at all. And you could end up like me: a loyal employee who was kicked to the curb in the matter of one day. I felt like one day I was loved and the next day I was not. At first, I was against forming a union, because I believed my employer’s promises to me that they would be considerate and fair if given a chance. I liked them, I trusted them, and had faith in them.
I once approached my regional director and said to him: “someone just said I was like a mom around here. Does that mean I’m old?” His response to me was: “No! It means you are a nurturer. It means people can go to you for help….”
Yet–the allegations against me were that I created a hostile work environment…..
When I went into that final meeting with my supervisor, my regional director, and HR—it was three against one. I had never felt so scared in all the years I’ve worked for this company. (Six years). I was not offered an opportunity to have one of my peers with me for support. Or a witness. I was unprepared and did not know I needed a notepad. I did not know I was walking into a situation I would be having to defend myself.
The meeting took about 30 minutes? I’m not sure. It was not long. That saying that goes: “one sentence can change the course of your life….” Is very much true. For me that sentence would have been “Renee we have HR on the phone here……” Omg, that sentence made my heart drop. I could not even fathom why HR would want to talk to me. I was in complete denial of anything. Up until the day I was fired (four days later) I believed they would see that I was good for the center. Up until the last moment I believed my Regional Director would say: “Look. These comments just can’t be made ok?”
There I go, always believing in them.
Instead he told me that the company couldn’t move past the comments I had made.
(Insert sad tears here…). That was another moment my world started to tilt.
We are a valued commodity in the interpreting community. However the VRS industry is truly watering down our profession by taking us backwards 20…30 years. When I first started out interpreting—I took the all day assignments alone. I crossed boundaries. I was a “helper”, taking away the power of the deaf person. Those are mistakes I made when I first started out and over the course of 30 years our profession has evolved immensely. And VRS is asking us to do that again by putting a huge emphasis on customer service.
There is nothing more powerful than collective bargaining.
Without the protection of some type of collective bargaining—the company can do whatever they want. They have been quoted as saying there is a process in place…that an interpreter will not be surprised when a termination occurs. That there is a coaching, verbal, written, final process in place. I disagree with that. While my comments apparently made someone feel “uncomfortable” to do their job….I do not think it put anyone’s safety at risk and my termination was sudden and unexpected. . There was no process in place for me when it came to another person’s feelings.
I had an attendance write up as well. But I was never given a coaching or a verbal. They went straight to written. I had to call HR and fight that one—they eventually moved it down to a verbal. (I begged my manager to change my schedule by 15 minutes because I couldn’t get there on time. He kept telling me repeatedly that I was okay and not to worry.) However when the regional director came to review files, it went straight to a written. So when they say “we have a process in place” what they really mean is “we can do whatever we want”.
Again–there is nothing more powerful than collective bargaining.
(Final Disclaimer: I was not the perfect employee by any means. I struggled to maintain my numbers when I was feeling discouraged and approached management several times asking for help….)
So to answer that question: “Why aren’t you off to greener pastures?” I think that maybe this is my greener pastures. I have never felt as protective over fellow interpreters as I do now. This is an area I want to see changed. I don’t want my profession to be watered down and unhealthy. I am now at my greener pastures. Thank you, Former Employer….for inadvertently showing me where my passion is.
This is not about me vs. the company that fired me. This is about the Sign Language Interpreting Profession vs. the VRS industry.
Let’s roll up our sleeves. And take back our profession.
The profession we worked hard to get.
Dear You who got scared:
Were you really afraid to do your job? Were you really feeling unsafe at work? Were you really afraid to not perform at your usual 90+%? Was it really me, your fellow interpreter who passed out candies on Valentine’s Day, who created that hostile work environment? Was it really my comments of trying to protect the interpreter’s health that made you feel unsafe? Or was it management?
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org