The Sign Language Interpreter and the…Vindication!

So the past year has been one of emotions. If you are not familiar with my story, by all means let me catch you up!
I was employed by Purple Communications in 2007. They closed the center in 2010. (They came in that morning and said “at the end of business today we will be closing our doors….”). That’s how I found out I was out of a job. Then they reopened in 2011 and I returned. Minus $9 per hour. My choice. No bitterness there.

May 19th, 2014 I was called into a meeting to be confronted by the Regional Director, Center Supervisor (because we had no manager at that time), and HR. I won’t go into all the details of that meeting, but I will say I was suspended, and later terminated, for (in their words) “creating a hostile work environment”. Me, the employee who was in charge of the craft table, the employee who crocheted lap afghans to keep our legs warm when the a/c kicked in, the employee who made taco bars and ice cream bars, the employee who headed the photo wall with positivity all over it, the employee who hand-sewed quilt squares with coworkers’ handwritten favorite quotes to make quilt hangings for the center, the employee who was constantly looking for ways to boost morale……me….fired for “creating a hostile work environment”.

The reality was me expressing my fears about the current log in requirements versus what I feared the requirements would be raised to. I was afraid that the new interpreters who came in logging in at 90+% for long shifts would convince the company to raise the bar on the current requirement of 80% (85% during non peak times). It was a valid fear. And I discussed it at length with several coworkers. I was not the only one feeling this way. However I was the one targeted.

I was terminated (along with Krystal Armstrong) for making these comments and “creating a hostile work environment”. The company severed my relationship with them, and offered me ten thousand dollars to part ways and keep my mouth shut about my termination, aside from other stipulations that could have potentially affected my future working relationships with other agencies. I took the “severance agreement” and ran it by a labor attorney, who told me it was simply HUSH MONEY.

I decided not to accept.

I decided to tell my story instead.

In telling that story, the Union decided to step in and take my case. Even though the Long Beach center was NOT unionized, they helped me. They fought for me. They spoke for me. They had my back. And they didn’t give up until a decision came back in my favor.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) did an investigation into my termination and here is what they found:

Purple suspended me (as well as Krystal Armstrong) and said they would need to do an investigation and get back to me. They contacted me four days later and told me that they had to sever my relationship with the company. Come to find out there was no investigation done. And if there was, well then no one could account for it! 

Purple always talked about their DAN procedure. You know; you get a coaching, then a verbal, then a written warning, then a final warning, THEN termination. None of that was followed in this case.

Purple told me people had expressed feeling “unsafe” coming to work due to comments I had made. Come to find out: the “complaints” were solicited by the company. The company solicited two complaints for me, and two complaints for Krystal. And yes, I know who those employees were. (The only reason I don’t out them here is because I’m not THAT bitter. But Krystal and I were informed of who said what and who signed what that resulted in our terminations. One word: Karma) 

One complaint was: an employee was feeling uncomfortable in the kitchen while I was talking to another coworker about the high log in percentages. CERTAINLY NOT A REASON TO FIRE ME.

Another complaint was: an employee overheard me talking to another coworker about stopping or slowing down production. LIE. (But the coworker I was allegedly saying this to was NOT questioned to see if this was in fact true or not….). Isn’t it HR’s job to get ALL the facts?

Another complaint was: Krystal had confrontationally asked another coworker “ARE YOU ONE OF THE ONES WITH A HIGH LOG IN??????” Again—-LIE. We received daily numbers and Krystal would have no reason to ask someone what their numbers were. Everyone knew everyone’s numbers. And then another coworker signed saying she had witnessed the conversation. LIE.

The National Labor Relations Board was surprised to hear what a great relationship I had with all of upper management. With the Center Manager, the Center Supervisor, the Regional Director, the Vice President of Operations, Human Resources, and even the CEO. My exchanges with each of those in management had been friendly and personal. On many levels. Being personally invited into their home for a movie and lunch. Spending time outside of work going for a run together. Spending time talking about our personal lives. I have had many conversations with each of those in management that had nothing to do with work. There was definitely some connections made, which added to the hurt and confusion of my termination. Because I had that personal connection with management, I had an extremely hard time with the sudden termination. To this day….I’ll never truly understand the actions of some of the ones I was closest to. “Transparency” my ass…

The National Labor Relations Board gave me the closest thing to closure as I’ll ever get. Thanks to their diligent investigation I have some vindication.

VINDICATION

transitive verb

1a: to set free

3a: to free from allegation or blame.

Thanks to the National Labor Relations Board and ASLIU (American Sign Language Interpreters United) my case (along with Krystal Armstrong’s case) came to completion. And it was determined that I had a RIGHT to be reinstated to my job, full time with benefits. I had a RIGHT to back pay. I had a RIGHT to have my suspension and termination records expunged. I had a RIGHT to have a notice posted in the center for 60 days saying all of the above.

I accepted the settlement and waived my right to reinstatement. However, there are not  any stipulations attached to the settlement and I am free to state the facts that have been uncovered during the course of the NLRB’s investigation, as that is public info.

My belief is (this is not fact, only my belief):

By signing the original “severance agreement” and waiving my rights to be forthcoming in what happened, the company would not have HAD to do an investigation. And they may have been counting on me signing away my rights. Therefore, whyyyyyy would they have to do an investigation like they said they would do??? If I signed the “severance agreement”, I would be bound to silence.

But I didn’t sign.

I will forever be in support of unionization. Look what they did for me when I was not even a member. If your center is not unionized…..GET IT DONE. If you are fired for trying to organize a union, contact the National Labor Relations Board because it’s against the law to terminate you for trying to unionize.

Against. The. Law.

One other employee who was fired was actively passing out union cards to get enough signatures so there could be a vote. She was terminated for reasons other than union organization. The company found a way to legally terminate her. Sadly she was terminated for doing something out of fear, and for doing something that almost everyone else did. She was terminated for doing something that another employee had received a coaching on. The inequality and unfairness of the situation had me baffled. Why is it okay for one person to get a coaching, and someone else to get fired for doing the exact same thing??

OH because the one that got terminated was the same one passing out union interest cards. And because without union protection, the company can *almost* do whatever they want.  

Remember: If the union had not stepped in on my behalf, I would never have had my termination reversed. 

Remember: If the union had not fought this for me, I would not have had any back pay. 

Remember: If the union had not had my back, I wouldn’t have been able to afford an attorney to fight this on my own. 

Remember: The center where I worked was not a union center. And yet, this is what the union did for me.  

Remember: If your center is not unionized, the company can do whatever they want.  

Remember: “Transparency” is a word that is highly overused by companies that are probably not transparent.  

Here is the  notification letter that I received. It made me happy to see that it was signed by the very same person that had terminated me.  The company was ordered to send this letter back in July.  It took them five months to write this two sentence letter…..I’m guessing because they didn’t want to send it!

  
  

Got Union??
Any Union questions contact:

National Labor Relations Board 1-866-667-6572

VRSunioninfo@gmail.com

Myost@mediaworkers.org

Pacific Media Workers Guild 415-421-6833

The Sign Language Interpreter and the….Road Less Traveled.

I sit here and wonder where to even begin. It’s a new year, time for new beginnings…right? A “new year” means a “clean slate”? Yes?

I read the book “Unbroken”. I finished it on New Year’s Eve. (If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and don’t want to know how it ends, then stop reading here.) I don’t think it was a coincidence that I finished this amazing book, based on the true story, about pain and redemption on the eve of a brand new year. Because when I woke up in the morning, it was no longer 2014 and I was on my way to work with an hour’s drive ahead of me. So I had some good time to reflect on my past year.

VRS.

Three letters that define a good portion of my life. Three letters that bring back some really horrible memories. POW also has three letters. And while I do not dare compare the two, there are definitely some similarities.

Zamperini was a Prisoner of War. There he endured such terrible treatment. He was starved. He was beaten daily. He was forced to steal. Lie. He was tested constantly and he had to do whatever it took to hang onto what little shred of dignity he had left. He was forced into hard labor with very very very little food. There are no words I can use to describe the horrific experience this man lived through. He was freed after two and a half years of being captured. But his freedom was only physical. He was still in prison, albeit it was in his mind. His abuser came to him in his dreams. Zamperini suffered for years from post traumatic stress syndrome as well as alcoholism. And in his “freedom”, he was in his own personal Hell, and he was burning to death.

He came to a point in his life when he had a life-changing experience. And he was able to forgive all the guards who abused him, and he was able to forgive his tormentor. The man who tormented him, beat him daily, and almost crushed his spirit. His tormentor never had the ability to see his inhumanness. But Zamperini was able to forgive even without an apology. Where does strength like that come from??!

So back in my car, on my way to work, I’m reflecting on all of this right? And I’m comparing it to my experience at VRS. Specifically the people who managed me. Specifically the people who lied to me. Specifically the people who were supposed to lead. Specifically the people who got this ball rolling. I cannot describe the anger I have even felt towards a certain color. I refuse to have that color anywhere near me. Not on me. Not in my car. Not in my house. That’s how bitter the taste is in my mouth.

And then I thought: If this man can find freedom from forgiving his worst enemy; why can’t I? If he could forgive the very person who starved him and beat him and crushed his spirit….why can’t I? My level of “scar on the brain” is nowhere near this man’s level. My level of bad memories is non-comparable to Zamperini’s . He would laugh at me, if he were still alive, to hear what I had been angry about. He would tell me his one day in captivity was a thousand times worse than my combined seven years with this company.

I have struggled for three days to say “I forgive them”. Because how can I? There were untruths spoken. And I had no one in my corner. How do I forgive a company whose management decided to fire me without a moment’s hesitation? Especially after having so many personal and private conversations with me, inside and outside of work?? How do I forgive a company who made their presence so strong following my termination that it effected some of my very close friendships at work? Do I forgive them–or do I thank them?

My life is so much better since they let me go. Let me rephrase that: My financial life has improved dramatically. That’s not to say I’m rich now. Not by any means! But my bank account has not been overdrawn since I was fired. To me that’s a dramatic change. Do you know how much stress is tied to an overdrawn bank account??! Working for that company on a full time basis made me Poor. With a capital P.

I am out and about more, as that comes with the life of a freelance interpreter. I love my views when driving. Even if it’s a bumper to bumper freeway. I’ve gotten to freelance with some of the people I was working with and have gotten to know them even better. Better conditions provide better opportunities to get better acquainted.

Keyword: Better.

And if things have gotten better—then why hold on to the bitterness, anger and hurt? Why hold on to all my unanswered questions? Why hold on to the people who betrayed my trust?

I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that.

I know this is one step closer to growth. And I also know that I’m not there yet. I also want to say that this process of forgiveness has nothing to do with my long-standing firm belief of a need for a union. The POWs stuck together through everything. Everything. . Zamperini knew every soldier in captivity had his back and he had theirs. He was never alone. Ever. His tormentor could NOT come between him and his team. It was an impossible feat. (Nor did the enemy try!)

I was on Facebook one day and happened to run across a picture of a call center that looked familiar. I felt like throwing up. All the feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness and bitterness came flooding back. All the feelings surrounding a lost friendship came back. All the memories of being a morale booster at the center came back. I felt so stupid for all I had done for them. I felt so stupid for trusting them. I was filled with regret! All because of one picture. In Zamperini’s story–there was a dinner some POWs had attended. To “reunite”. The server brought the food and among the food was a side of white rice. One of the POWs was triggered and absolutely lost it.

I can relate.

Was my termination the worst thing that ever happened to me? No. Absolutely not. But it is in the top 3. Was it the best thing that ever happened to me? No. Absolutely not. But it is in the top 3.

God did for me what I would not do for myself. The Universe took care of me and responded to a wish or a thought I must have spoken aloud:

I wish I had more money!
I wish I didn’t need this job!
I wish I didn’t have to be here today!
Why am I here?
This job is making me poor!
I cannot afford to work here!
I am too old for this.
My neck hurts.
My elbows hurt!
My pinky finger is feeling tingly.

The universe probably said, “ok. Let’s take care of you….” I could have done without the blindsided smack across the face, though. On the bigger scale—my health was not in good hands at that place. My mental health was suffering. There was a constant cloud hanging over me.

And when I run across pictures in my phone that show the “happy” times….my PTSD from working there gets triggered. I don’t “lose it”…..but I do feel a sadness come over me.

As I said, there’s absolutely no comparison between my experience and that of any POW. Just saying that makes me feel trivial. But MY world was affected. MY physical health was affected. MY mental health was affected. MY happiness was affected. MY confidence was affected. MY ethics were affected. MY beliefs were affected.¬† MY self was affected. All because I chose to have a personal relationship with them. Unlike Zamperini, I trusted my leaders.

And I was the one that made that choice. However, I too, am Unbroken.

 


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This is a message that was left for me by management because I was on phones and busy at the moment.

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This was made for me by a coworker because she knew I was a STEELERS a fan. ūüôā

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This was waiting for me when I returned after being gone for a week of training. It made me feel loved and missed.

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This was a group of us at a workout outside of work. I cut our faces out to respect those who don’t want their face plastered on the Internet.

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This is the taco bar I made for my coworkers. Just because I learned that slow cooking a tri tip in the crockpot makes for super yummy tacos!!!! Try it!

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I am sure they fired me and then said “NEXT!” Moved on. Without a glance back. Without an afterthought. I am sure they never wondered how I fared. I was just a number to them. They did not need me as much as I needed them. They didn’t care. All they knew was they had to get me out. For whatever reason. They needed me out. And that’s what they did.

“NEXT!!”

If a brutally beaten Prisoner of War can make peace with his past….

Then maybe I can too….


*as I was debating whether or not to post this—I opened my Facebook—and this was the first thing on my newsfeed:

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The Sign Language Interpreter and the…..words: UNITY, UNITED, and UNDIVIDED.

In 2012, we had a meeting with upper management right before the union vote was to take place. This was part of an actual conversation regarding the 5% increase in log-in requirements….

VI: So we have to give more with the higher log-in…what will we get in return….

Management: You have a job.

(insert the sound of crickets here)

It went pretty silent after that exchange. I think the interpreters who didn’t think they could be surprised at anything management said…were surprised. The answer of “you have a job” made it very clear that this was an “us vs them” atmosphere.

And what makes this blog painful for me is: I was on the side of the company at the time that comment was made. :-(.

The lyrics to the song Amazing Grace come to mind.

I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see…

What also makes me sad today is seeing how many interpreters are fooled into believing the VRS industry cares. The very issues I kept bringing up (that allegedly caused a hostile working environment) were regarding the high log-ins. The company was not about to address those concerns. The only way they were willing to address them was to terminate me.

There. Problem solved.

Only it didn’t solve anything. Interpreters are being injured left and right. People are trying to give up shifts (that they are being held to even with advance notice). People are reducing their work hours even though they want the experience in VRS. People have been (and currently are) on restricted work duties.

In 2012 when I was on the side of the company, I didn’t foresee any of this. I couldn’t fathom that unhealthy log-ins would be “encouraged” simply by “not discouraging” them. People who have unhealthy log-ins are recognized by being first on a list. While the people who have met the minimum requirement are at the bottom of the list. I raised this issue as well. How was that problem solved?

They terminated me. There. Problem solved.

(Or should that read: their problem solved.) ?

Let’s STAND TOGETHER. I never thought I would be living during a time that the integrity and purity of the interpreting profession would have to be fought for. Back when people were fighting for teams and standards and certification—I was a youngster only benefitting from a fight already fought. And now I see the future standing before me.

Wearing hand braces.

And I know this is my time, and my turn to fight for the past, present and future interpreters who are now faced with unhealthy working conditions.

This is 2014. Seriously? Unhealthy working conditions for the sign language interpreter????

We should not be witnessing new-to-the-field interpreters (5 years or less) wearing hand braces. We should not be witnessing interpreters with 10 years or less facing burnout. We should not be witnessing interpreters with 20+ years experience having to walk away from their life career.

It’s time. To stand arm in arm.

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Feel free to email me at renee.souleret@yahoo.com

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The Sign Language Interpreter and the…..Limbo Game.

The deaf community and the interpreting community are interdependent. We depend on each other. I need the deaf community if I want to remain a sign language interpreter. And the deaf community needs me if they want to communicate hassle-free with the hearing community. We need each other.

So what choice does an interpreter have when their employer tells them not to match the tone of the deaf person? Does the interpreter adhere to the integrity of the interpreting ethics? Or follow the company based policy?

If a Deaf caller is yelling on the phone, we were told to not yell. We were told to turn the volume up on our headset. And to use other “tools” to match the tone of the caller. One of the requirements of FCC is to provide functional equivalence.

“Functional Equivalence” means that deaf callers should have exactly the same rights and privileges as hearing callers. So if I (as a hearing caller) can scream at the person I’m talking to….then the deaf caller should have that same right. But not according to where I worked. Where I worked I was told to “not yell.”

“Because it disrupts other VIs and can compromise confidentiality.”

In an earlier blog I said that VRS was watering down the interpreting profession. This is what I mean.

I wonder if deaf callers would be ok knowing the interpreter was not “yelling” if that was the tone of the deaf caller? If a deaf caller is having an argument with someone and yelling ensues, is it fair for the interpreter to match the tone of the hearing caller (signing loud and hard to let the deaf caller know the hearing person is yelling) but not match the tone of the deaf caller? Talking through clenched teeth (in an angry voice) is not the same as yelling. If confidentiality or disrupting other VIs is an issue–then the VRS industry needs to make changes within their centers to give the interpreter the freedom to be a sign language interpreter.

Period.

When I was a VI, if the deaf caller was “signing yelling” then I was “voice yelling”. That’s functional equivalence.

Tenet 2.0 of the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) on professionalism states:

2.3 Render the message faithfully by conveying the content and spirit of what is being communi- cated, using language most readily understood by consumers, and correcting errors discreetly and expeditiously.

It does not say “render message faithfully except when it might disrupt other VIs.”

To me it would seem that when a deaf person is yelling in sign language and using an interpreter—they are
expecting that interpreter to yell what they are saying.

I bet VRS will soon be telling the VIs: “please do not use bad language on the phone because some other VIs are uncomfortable with that….” Seriously. What’s next???

That’s my opinion anyway.

And why is that my opinion? Because we, as employees, keep accepting the bar getting lower and lower. We keep saying OK to higher log ins, shorter breaks, abusive callers, using our own break time for mandatory one-on-one meetings…..and now: “no yelling on calls”.

I say “we” because I was a VI for 10 years and I still feel like one. Even though I was kicked to the curb for raising these very issues. Even though I was outcasted for speaking my mind. Even though I was locked out for expressing my fears. Just because I no longer work for Them…..does not mean I no longer believe in all these issues.

There’s a game that’s played at parties. The Limbo Game. You know…the one where two people keep lowering the bar and a third person keeps going under it to see how low they can go. VRS management is holding this limbo bar, and they keep lowering it to see how low the interpreters will go. This is not a fun game in the VRS world.

Higher log ins (lower the bar).
Less time for breaks (lower the bar).
Pay cuts (lower the bar).
Continue to accept calls from very abusive callers — not to be confused with angry callers (lower the bar)
No discussing working conditions (lower the bar).
No snacks on the center floor (lower the bar)
One on one meetings, on your own break time (lower the bar).
Robot interpreting mentality (lower the bar)

And now: No yelling on calls. (Totally lowering the bar!)

No–this game is not fun in the VRS world…..no fun at all.

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Feel free to email me at renee.souleret@yahoo.com

The Sign Language Interpreter and the…..Awakening.

In previous blogs I have talked about percentages and numbers, which may not seem to make sense if you are not working within the VRS industry. So I decided to break it down for you.

Staying logged in: This means an interpreter is wearing a headset and sitting in front of the camera ready to answer the next call coming in. While logged in the interpreter will keep processing calls until they decide to log out.

Percentages of Log in
99% of a 5 hour shift* = 3 minutes off the phones.
93% of an 8 hour shift* = 4 minutes of break time every hour.
90% of an 8 hour shift* = 6 minutes of break time every hour.
*this was not required at the company I worked at—but it was not discouraged either.

Different VRS companies have different requirements for staying logged in. The minimum being 80%. (Which is a 12 minute break for every hour worked.)

I used to have math problems written all over my white board at work. OMG. Sometimes I would be so tired I would yell out “what’s 310 plus 8???” Or “what’s 120 plus 17?” My mind would be so tired of numbers, I would literally be too tired to figure it out. And usually–someone would yell the answer back to me. I would have to stay logged in for over two hours straight if I wanted a 24 minute break. Which I was discouraged to do. I was told not to “bank my breaks”.

And keep in mind, that was the minimum. Employees were getting written up or talked to when they actually had an average that met company expectations.

It was very confusing to say the least–not to mention discouraging.

There is supposed to be a set amount of seconds between calls. Meaning when you wave goodbye and disconnect…..you have x amount of seconds to get ready for the next call. It wasn’t that long. (It used to be 15 seconds but like everything else–that changed.) So if an interpreter has a long call….30 minutes of intense conversation or 30 minutes of emotional content—-when they wave goodbye and disconnect….only seconds later a new call comes in. An interpreter’s emotions can go up and down within a few calls. First you get something serious, then you get something not so serious, then you get blurry picture, then you get an angry caller, then you get a happy caller, then you get two people on the phone fighting, then you get two people on the phone laughing about what they did a week ago, then you get a conference call, then you get an accident report call, then you get another blurry picture, then possibly a 911 call…..and every single call must be like your first call of the day. FRESH! Deaf callers deserve the best. They deserve a fresh interpreter. They do not deserve a tired worn out interpreter. When I would train new employees I would tell them “treat each call like it is your first call of the day! That’s what our callers deserve.” And while that is what both hearing and Deaf callers deserved–it was hard to maintain on a consistent basis. I am sorry to any Deaf caller who may have gotten the “worn out” me. ūüė¶

So many rules have been set in place, it just seems that everyone involved can’t win. (Except of course–the company.)

One day I was shown how many calls I processed in one day. The amount blew my mind. I had processed over 250 calls!! The interpreter’s body and mind start to wear down. Accurate interpreting starts to weaken. After time, shoulders start to hurt. Necks start to become stiff. Headaches start to pop up more frequently.

My growing concern towards the end of my days working in VRS was for the interpreters working in VRS, specifically my center. It took my termination to begin to really SEE what impact VRS is having on the interpreting community as a whole. The new interpreters who are so excited to be there are hurting themselves. They may not feel it that day, but eventually their body will feel it. Not only are they hurting themselves but because of their excitement to be interpreting, they are unknowingly hurting the profession within the VRS environment. ūüė¶

It is my opinion that VRS companies will look at “trends” and make adjustments based on those trends. I am scared that the interpreters who stay logged in over 90 percent for long shifts are setting a new trend within the VRS industry.

Why is it so hard to make VRS a safe environment? Why does it take union activity to fight for health concerns? Why do the log in requirements keep going up? Why does the FCC keep cutting rates? Why has there been such a drastic change in such a fairly new industry? Why did unions become such a hot topic only within the last couple of years? Why are VRS employers so adamant about keeping the union out? Why are long time interpreters starting to have health issues now that they work in VRS?

(Now that I am out of that arena…my neck feels great!)

You might ask: Why in the world stay? Well as I mentioned earlier…many reasons. Stupidity being the top one for me. And hope. Always hoping it would get better. Always believing it couldn’t possibly get worse.

And then it would.

I wasn’t there for the money. I was there for the camaraderie. The interpreters that I worked with are truly the best of the best. ‚̧ԳŹ. When interpreters get together–watch out. We laugh and laugh and laugh. We sign to each other. We become a family. We have experiences and memories together. “Remember that one time we tried adult diapers at work to see if our log in would go up???” Hand over stomach, laughing. (Yes true story!)

Trust me–we laugh about that now–but it’s the wave of the future.

“Welcome to VRS. Adult diapers are part of our benefits package…..”

LOL.

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ENOUGH….

Feel free to email me at renee.souleret@yahoo.com

The Sign Language Interpreter and the……VRS Industry.

When a tsunami hits a town, there is an aftermath of chaos. When an earthquake hits, there are aftershocks. When you set a boundary for yourself by speaking up, there’s an afterburn.

When you get terminated suddenly from a job, all of the above “afters” exist. At least for me it did.

What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming number of people relating to my original blog. I had no idea that by telling my story, it would also acknowledge everyone else’s painful experiences. It makes me very sad that so many wonderful interpreters feel like robots while working in the VRS industry. It makes me so angry that so many long time, skilled interpreters view VRS as the modern day sweat shop, myself included. What is wrong with this picture?!

After my story came out–I was told these comments were made by management:

“It was a severance package that was offered….”
“It was in poor taste and bad judgement to post….”
“The termination was not sudden…”

I was against the union back in 2012 because I didn’t understand what a union could do for me. I trusted my company would not harm us. I believed them when they came in and said “we didn’t know you were unhappy…” I believed them! And now I see them doing the same thing. Coming in to show some care and concern only when they find out some interpreters want to unionize. I switched sides well before my termination.

About three or four months ago I told one of the union committee members that I was kicking myself for passing around the petition. I told him it was one of my biggest regrets. And then about two weeks before I was suddenly put on suspension I had an opportunity to tell another committee member the same thing. And since then, I’ve apologized to all committee members for working against what they were trying to accomplish. Hindsight is 20/20.

Ironically, just recently¬†an interpreter that is/was trying to establish a union at the call center that I was fired from….was also suspended for a small infraction. And a week later–another union organizer was called into a meeting. She too was asked not to return for her next shift.¬† The very next day she was informed that she had been terminated from the company.¬†¬† That brings the count to THREE SKILLED INTERPRETERS FIRED WITHIN ONE MONTH.¬† It is my opinion that this company is out of control.

Again I ask: what is wrong with this picture? Who’s creating the hostile environment?

Doesn’t that sound like a hostile work environment? Interpreters afraid to lose their job if they want to unionize?

Why does it take the word “union” to float around the center for management to¬†swoop in and show some care and concern, that wasn’t there previously?¬† ¬†And my question: how many interpreters will¬†be fooled by¬†this?¬† Bamboozled?¬† Trust me–there’s no judgement in that question. I ask that aloud because I was one of the ones that would have¬†been fooled¬†(was fooled)¬†back in 2012. I have found that I am not alone in switching from anti to pro.

When I was working–I tried to follow this:

8:30am–10:30am (120 min logged in)
10:30–10:50 (20 min break)
10:50–12:30 (100 minutes logged in)
12:30–1 (unpaid lunch break)
1-2:30 (90 minutes logged in)
2:30-2:45 (15 min break)
2:45–3:20 (35 min logged in)

If followed, this would have given me 345 minutes logged in for a 6.5 hour shift. Which would have equaled to a log in of something around 88%. “If followed.”¬† I could never come close.¬† I was always ending up around 80–82%.

I was rarely able to follow it. Going to the bathroom alone takes 6 minutes. (How many adults reading this knows how many minutes it takes them to run to the bathroom???). Often times, I was embarrassed to acknowledge even to myself, that I was a 46 year old woman who was literally running to the bathroom.

One day I had my schedule written down, because once again I was going to follow that schedule and have good log in. I experienced some tech issues and I had to move stations. So right from the beginning of my shift—my 20 min break had already been used. I was so distraught! I broke down and “lost it”.¬† It was so stressful¬†to always try and figure out what my minutes were.¬† ¬†It was rare I could have a day that could go “according to schedule”. Any little unplanned thing could throw it off.

Like running to the bathroom unexpectedly.
Like a coworker having a hard day and having to be logged out to listen and support.
Like having to make a call on my break because I need to make a dr’s appointment but they have me on hold.
Like not feeling good.
Like needing to sit in the massage chair.
Like my headset not working.
Like the computer having problems.
Like the software having tech issues.
Like a fire alarm going off and us having to exit the building.

Any. Little. Thing. Would. Throw. It. Off.

That was stressful. And no–I do not miss that part of the job. The last time we had a fire alarm go off, we had to exit the building. We were not allowed back in until the fire department gave us the okay. I was told by management that those 20 minutes, sitting outside, would not be deducted from my required log in.

I had taken a twenty minute break right before that alarm went off. I was at the end of my shift and I knew there was no way I would meet the requirements that day because of that extra 20 minutes off the phone. ūüė¶

So yes–I switched my stance on the union.¬† This is why I was worried about people staying logged in for as high as 94% for a ten hour shift.¬†¬† This is why I was worried the company would see a trend.¬† This is why I kept making my fears known.¬† I did not want the bar to be raised!

It is my belief that management somehow got the idea that I was trying to organize a union. (Which I wasn’t). I believe that some comments I made about the union were overheard and reported. And since the regional director believed I was an informal leader (as mentioned in the previous blog) it is also my belief he felt he had to get rid of me quickly. I could be wrong, but it is also my belief that management probably thought this union “nonsense” would be nipped in the bud by firing me. What they didn’t realize was it was not me who was bringing in the union. And the union organizers that are there now are¬†the only ones being scrutinized for every little thing.¬† Not only being scrutinized, but being fired.

Sadly, it is no surprise that some people are afraid to be involved.

Isn’t it against the law to interfere with union organization? Doesn’t federal law allow employees the right to form a union? Aren’t employees given the right to collect and fill out cards to bring the union in?

We are sign language interpreters. We should not be (literally) running to the bathroom. Our jobs are not like normal desk jobs. When we are sitting in the stations, we are taking calls. We are working. We are signing. We are processing. We are making quick judgements.

We are interpreting. (And from what I learned in a workshop I attended last year; Interpreting is the only profession that uses both sides of the brain simultaneously.)

Interpreting is a profession. It is not a job.

The VRS environment demands the best interpreters.¬† This concept of Video Relay Service is made to serve DEAF people.¬† Why does the company think it’s OKAY to replace long time, skilled interpreters with new interpreters with very little experience?¬†¬† The company I worked for thinks it is OKAY to allow an interpreter to work a five hour shift, and take a three minute break.¬† And while it is the newbie interpreter who is deciding to do this…….the company does not discourage that employee from endangering¬†their health.¬† New interpreters are cheaper.¬† They don’t ask questions.¬† They bring in high billable minutes because they are willing to be logged in over 90% of their shifts.¬†¬†¬†And they are on the path of self destruction at the rate they are going.

And the VRS industry doesn’t care.¬†¬† Because it’s all about numbers and profit….profits that are earned off the back of the VIs and the deaf community.¬† That’s my opinion anyway.

 

On the front line, together.

It really is time to take our profession back.

 

Feel free to email me at renee.souleret@yahoo.com

 

The Sign Language Interpreter and the…..Termination.

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.

HUH??!!!!

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.

Nah.

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
Massage reimbursement
Gym membership reimbursement
Three weeks of Paid Time Off
Workshop reimbursement
A chance to earn some ceu’s.
Ability to work a holiday and get extra pay
Option to do community assignments
Health insurance
Vision/Dental
Life insurance

 

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.

Nothing.

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?

Renee

 

 

Feel free to email me at renee.souleret@yahoo.com