SOS International (SOSi) has been served a so-called consolidated complaint for unfair labor practices by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees, and is required to respond by June 14, 2017.
The three consolidated complaints were filed and amended by the Pacific Media Workers Guild, a labor union representing over 1,000 newspapers, language and communication workers in Northern California and Hawaii, between June 2016 and March 2017.
The union alleges SOSi misclassified workers as independent contractors to avoid providing better terms of employment including higher wages and benefits and engaged in unfair labor practices including retaliation by terminating those who spoke out against the company and participated in demonstrations.
Founded in 1989 by Sosi Setian to provide contract interpretation services to the federal and state courthouses in and around the New York City area, SOSi has grown to nearly a thousand staff providing a broad range of services to clients across several US government communities.
This includes a contract awarded by the Department of Justice (DoJ) in 2015 for up to five years and USD 80m providing the management, supervision, labor, and supplies necessary to perform interpreter services in 200 languages and dialects and augment the DoJ Executive Office for Immigration Review’s (EOIR) in-house staff.
In their press release on the DoJ award, SOSi estimated that nearly 300,000 immigration matters are heard annually at 59 immigration courts across all US states, territories and the District of Columbia. Currently, there is a backlog of nearly two years worth of cases in these courts and the strain on resources has been growing.
According to Justice Department data cited by the Chicago Tribune, 2,457 hearings were adjourned due to interpreter no-shows in 2016. This was more than double the 1,101 no-shows in 2015 when SOSi was phased in, and four times the 512 no-shows in 2014, when Lionbridge Technologies held the contract.
The NLRB complaint brings the chorus of interpreter complaints against SOSi to a head, with Slator first reporting on the interpreters banding together back in October 2015. The move was in response to SOSi cutting the rates of interpreters to between USD 30 and USD 35 per hour for the first two hours and lower rates for succeeding hours, and shorter cancellation notice periods.
The situation is representative of the pressures on rates that vendors are facing in government contracts globally, and with interpreters bearing the brunt of this pressure. Slator recently reported how Scotland’s pooling of translation buying will likely pressure rates, and how the government’s demand for lower rates contributed to the bankruptcy of Pearl Linguistics in the UK.
After SOSi responds in writing this week, the case will be heard at the NLRB’s offices in Los Angeles on August 21, 2017. The complaint against SOSi is the first time a federal agency has recognized contract interpreters as employees and could require SOSi to reclassify its over 800 interpreters supporting this contract as employees nationwide.
Such a result would impact the contract’s margin for SOSi as employers are obligated to follow minimum wage and overtime laws, pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance premiums and allow employees to organize and seek remedy discrimination. In some instances, employers must also provide family and vacation leave, health insurance, and retirement benefits.
SOSi do not believe this will happen. “The claims of a handful of former independent contractors are baseless and do not accurately represent the company’s business,” said Samantha O’Neil, Manager, Corporate Communications and Community Relations at SOSi, in an email reply to Slator’s request for comment. “We have successfully recruited hundreds of independent contractors who provide interpretive services in more than 200 languages and dialects in support of EOIR.”
Reflecting on the current established practice, O’Neil added: “The August hearing will give SOSi the opportunity to present our consistent position that, given the nature of the work, as well as the short and limited duration of individual job assignments, we follow the general industry practice of drawing from a large number of independent, sub-contracted interpreters to meet our requirements.”