OLYMPIA, Wash. - Medical interpreters in Washington - the people who help doctors and social workers communicate with non-English speakers - voted Tuesday to ratify their first union contract, in an agreement that is the first of its kind in the nation.
Interpreters, required by federal law for Medicaid patients, have been hired through brokers in Washington instead of working for the state directly. Some had not been happy with hiring practices and pay scales they saw as arbitrary, and decided that joining a union could do more to ensure their job security, according to Spanish interpreter Narseisa Hodges.
"We're establishing a new foundation, and things to be run in decency and in order, and in fairness and in respect to the work that we do. The same as a doctor, we help to save lives."
The new arrangement also lowers the state's administrative costs from 44 percent to 28 percent, the medical interpreters say.
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Among their concerns, Hodges says, has been bureaucracy and what they describe as "poor treatment" from the brokers that assign them to jobs. She says many of the translators are first-generation Americans who were often hesitant to speak out.
"We never know how much our money is going to be until our check is in our hands. We never know if we're getting paid for the assignment now, or later, or never."
One of the first priorities for the new union members, Hodges adds, is to raise their professional standing in the medical community, something she says has been lacking.
"We are a crucial part of the care of the patient. Not that we're there to make decisions, but we are also a member of that team, and we don't always get the respect as a member of the team."
About 2,000 medical translators work statewide in more than 100 languages, and will be represented in contract negotiations by the Washington Federation of State Employees.