As an industry, we are now facing the prospect of a video interpreters union at arguably the best provider in the market – Convo Communications. This union known as Video Interpreters United Video Interpreters United arrives with the potential to change everything we know as video interpreters processing calls. It is challenging the status-quo and offering an improved future to the industry as a whole.
The conversation has been had time and time again: to many of the major relay providers interpreters are not people, they are numbers. For over twenty years interpreters worked to develop a system that would satisfy two demands: a Deaf community’s needs and a hearing company’s bottom line. As interpreters often are, they were forgotten when things went right. In 2009 Convo Relay was formed to introduce a new world of VRS, one that was designed around the needs of its Deaf consumers with interpreters given the freedom to be themselves. Their interpreters were given license outside of anything the industry was offering at the time. Not only was their workforce respected but often praised publicly for showing up, doing the work and investing in a sense of community with their callers. It was evident that the driving force of Convo’s rapid growth was its exceptional pool of interpreters who took pride in being a part of a revolution. Convo offered a breath of fresh air to many interpreters who had written off VRS work entirely. As a company, they brought in talent that would have been otherwise off-limits to a provider. This move alone shifted the way many of our colleagues saw the VRS industry. Suddenly it became clear that the system wasn’t the problem, the players were. Convo was at the forefront of building a more accessible future both for their Deaf consumers and for interpreters interested in retiring uninjured. Wayne Betts one of the founders noted in their first press release on launching the service “We also plan to create an unique experience for our team members and giving them the opportunity to grow on the job. It’s all about creating a positive and progressive atmosphere for our team.” [Horowitz, Convo Relay 2009]
From their inception, they dreamed of a place where interpreters could thrive.
It was these benefits that brought me to Convo in 2017. I had watched my colleagues recount time and time again how fantastic their job was. They often remarked that they couldn’t believe how different VRS could be. They worked with exceptional interpreters who spent their days discussing the work and how they could further develop their skill. It was no secret in the community that Convo was difficult to get into. Everyone talked about the intensity of their screenings. You didn’t just have to be good, you had to be the best. Nobody ‘deserved’ a spot in their centers, it was earned in the field. I spent a couple years building my skills at Sorenson before finally making the transition in 2017 in New York as the Manhattan office on the upper east side was opening. After spending years in the worst job I had ever been in, I had finally landed my dream job. I reflected on the countless shifts I’d spend calculating the days left until I could apply to work at Convo and realize my full potential. My first week alone made the sacrifice more than worth it. In fact, I remember telling the training manager my first day “I plan to retire here”. I left in 2019.
Like so many other interpreters who followed me, I felt like a failure. I so desperately wanted to stay with Convo forever. I still miss my cubicle, my colleagues, but most of all, the callers. I was lucky enough to start with the company when I could really connect with the callers. I had gotten to know them over time and in turn they knew me, often giving me subtle cues of how to best process a specific call for them. I think about their experience now. So many of my fellow practitioners are working tirelessly to give them the best quality they can. While VRS has always had limitations, the company I once worked for believed in pushing the boundaries of tradition in favor of its customer.
With the knowledge of pressures placed on interpreters in a VRS setting, Convo built a much better model. Protections were in place for interpreters who felt overworked or overwhelmed. They truly believed that healthy interpreters were integral to the quality of call processing. That support created a new experience for callers. For the first time, they could trust that any interpreter processing a call for the service would be present, connected and transparent in communication. The collaboration they had built into their internal processes directly influenced the quality that callers felt from the comfort of their homes. From every angle, the work they were doing was revolutionary and it was all centered around healthy, happy interpreters.
Matt Salerno, one of the founding members of VIU reminds us that “A VI can offer their best self to callers if they are working in an environment that supports them. As an industry, we recognize research showing that VRS settings have quantifiably higher health risks due to chronic stress under the current system.” Given the amount of stress and burnout interpreters are reporting in the industry, it’s easy to question where the needs of their callers fall in priority. In a perfect world, the industry would function in a way that serves the needs of all three parties involved without detriment to anyone. Yet, the reality of it’s current state paints a much different picture. From an interpreting perspective, it seems that the reality Convo interpreters are facing is a far departure from their origin.
"Since its inception Convo has been a safe haven for interpreters from other providers to come to. Many of the issues we face like scheduling and unhealthy performance expectations, apply to us all regardless of the provider we work for. Broadly we hope to see action taken by VRS providers that genuinely invest in the longevity of the VI workforce. Our goal is to engage VRS companies to do better by showing the world what stands to be gained by allowing their employees to thrive."
– James Wilder
For decades, interpreters manning the call centers connecting our community have looked to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) to no avail. In fact, efforts to unionize via communication channels created by the organization allegedly created and funded (by interpreters) to support interpreters have been shut down. In 2020 RID received approval from the NLRB to restrict their ability to use organization sanctioned channels to improve their working conditions. That decision by the board directly contradicted the administrative law judge’s (ALJ) recommendations, overturning what had previously been seen as a victory for the worker.
While ironic that an organization in operation solely by the work of interpreters would limit their ability to thrive and earn a decent living it’s certainly not surprising when you consider the VRS industry has been in the same positioning since it’s inception. The one striking difference? RID is a nonprofit established to serve the needs of its members regardless of employment status.
When the very organization responsible for credentialing, lobbying for improved standards and compliance has turned its back on practitioners in the field, very few options seem politically charismatic. This is why Convo as an organization was so notable in their arrival. With a clear vision paved for the future of VRS and a hungry customer base, it seemed that we were experiencing the next shift within our industry. A shift most interpreters would declare a positive success.
The founders of Convo had a clear vision for the company and like any startup, they were met with unexpected obstacles they needed to work around. While their ability to quickly roll out changes is to their credit, it’s important to note that interpreter’s ability to adapt to sudden changes is what they’re best known for. With changes happening so quickly within a startup, the other priorities like happy, healthy people can start to fall down the list. With new updates and changes happening practically overnight, it’s no surprise that interpreters on the front lines are asking for more attention paid to clarity and the quality of their life at work.
The company is in an incredible position when faced with a unionized workforce. They have the opportunity to partner with their most powerful weapon against competition in the market. With a collaboration of management’s drive towards higher profits and interpreters having a voice in the changing VRS landscape, Convo could quickly set itself on a level playing field to outshine Sorenson on a global scale.
Being apart of a Union for VIs strengthens our field, secures our future and allows us to steer our destinies. I love making room for my own dreams of success. For Interpreters, By Interpreters .. that’s the VIU.
– Christopher Coles
It’s hard not to see Convo’s executive leadership as a victim in a way. They’ve created focus groups for their interpreters, sent surveys and carved out time for team meetings. According to the DeafVee “Three times between August 1 and September 30, surveys were sent out to interpreters suggesting that the company wanted to know more about varying things including culture, equipment, their overall health, and whether they were happy” with interpreters “crying for help” in multiple centers without a response from management. Other interpreters describe their work as “a living hell”. From an outside perspective, it would seem Convo executives are now in the position many early interpreters were. They are trying to reconcile the needs of their callers with the need for a growing company to produce record profits. Yet like in its first iteration, the machine is losing the input of the interpreter.
It’s also hard not to see the benefit from the side of the caller. Interpreters are the first to hear about the experience of their callers face to face, typically before and during active calls. Both positive and negative, interpreters have a dialed in pulse on the community’s feelings, attitudes and requests. A union allows for a unique feedback channel for Deaf consumers. Complaints only interpreters are privy to can arrive to the table where decisions are made, removed entirely of identifying information due to the interpreter’s obligation to confidentiality. Not only does this protect the provider from failing to acknowledge the weight of the comments but it protects the consumer from experiencing any negatives in the process of providing feedback on a service they rely on.
Deaf callers will be able to collaborate with the practitioners processing their calls to see a better VRS being created based on their input. Until this point, feedback has much been left to a reporting system with a sole commitment of acknowledgment. Interpreters having voting power within the VRS industry means bringing the requests and needs of their callers to upper management with a requirement of action.
In an effort to understand the shift towards a union deeper, I got in touch with one of the founding members, Matt Salerno. His insight was incredible as were the first hand accounts of interpreters currently employed by Convo which you can find on the union website.
Hi Matt! Thanks so much for having this chat with me! I’m really interested in what’s happening over there with the union.
My pleasure! I’m thrilled to tell you about it!
Let’s dive right in! I’m really curious to find out what brought about the formation of a union. As you know I was previously with Convo and I’m curious what inspired you and the team to finally do this.
Convo has had its ups and downs over the years. As a tech start-up, that’s the name of the game! Being the only fully certified, Deaf-owned VRS provider we all know that Convo has been a trailblazer in the industry. Unfortunately VIs bear the brunt of many of these growing pains. Seeing no tangible results or long-term solutions from focus groups and team meetings, we decided to take it upon ourselves to codify guaranteed protections for the VI workforce and bring a seat of our own to the table. Convo’s brand has always been their unrivaled VI workforce, and once again we are following through on that claim by pioneering VRS into the 21st century with a union!
I take it during the conversations happening in focus groups and team meetings weren’t creating change? What was the tipping point?
At the onset of the pandemic as conditions worsened, we began to connect with one another about the struggles of virtual work and nostalgia for a collaborative call center environment. We recognized the collective exhaustion brought on by an endless queue, and little reprieve in terms of benefits and wages. Policies and practices continued to change, which is a major factor in why we chose to pursue a union. With a contract, our workforce is protected by those terms. Our conversations grew when the DeafVee articles came out; for many it was an opportunity to come out of the shadows and feel seen. Empowered, we decided to take things into our own hands.
The DeafVee Journal reported “Interpreters are sharing that they no longer receive collaboration from their colleagues, their supervisors, and the Human Resources department (some may argue that this is due to the pandemic but the declines began well before the pandemic hit). Interpreters need answers to their questions as well as support to grow as interpreters and as professionals so that they can continue to provide high-quality interpreting for the Deaf community.”
A contract is certainly a big step towards protections, what are you hoping to see in the contract as terms?
We have come together with the common goal of an equitable workplace and that is what will drive our contract negotiations. We value: having safe and healthy working conditions, sustainable performance standards, meaningful input in policies and procedures, equitable wages that reflect the value of our work, fair treatment as humans with unique needs, communication that is transparent, clear, and timely, honesty and respect to be upheld as core values, reimbursement for autonomously selected personal development, and clearly defined and standardized onboarding, termination, and disciplinary policies. When some VIs began to visibly speak up about our needs, many of our policies saw great improvement. History has shown us that those changes can happen any time, so there is no guarantee that they will be here to stay. VIs do not have a say in policies, because we do not have them ratified into contract. Through a union, we will be treated as stakeholders in our workplace.
While those are terms seemingly anyone would be on-board with, I’m sure it wasn’t easy announcing this to fellow VI’s. What was their reaction?
Funny enough, it has been beyond refreshing to be in community with fellow VIs. The pandemic has lead to a greater trend in working in isolation, so we have relished these conversations. With the growth in new VIs working from home, it has also been fantastic to connect with people we would never have met otherwise. Like with most other union campaigns, there are VIs who are not interested. We take the time to learn about what turns them off from the idea, and share facts about unions. We validate their concerns, and hope that they will appreciate the benefits of a union contract at the end of the day. Overall we are fortunate to have been met with excitement from most interpreters and community members, both inside and outside of Convo. The best part of all of this has been reaching out to Convo VIs to see how they felt about unionizing, only to find out that they were already trying to do it! There is great strength in unity and we are grateful that our colleagues see that.
That’s fantastic! How about management? Have you found support in the upper channels of the company?
We have found support in some pretty surprising places! Without compromising anyone in particular, there are some gems in the company who see the value in our effort. Many former employees have signed on to our petition as well. By and large, we have gotten the “pro-employee” message from our C-suite. That’s great news for us, considering a union IS Convo’s employees! We hope they will recognize our union and voluntarily begin negotiations.
Accountability and communication are major factors in why we formed VIU. Turnover in management is reflected in the chronic understaffing we face on the frontlines. It’s been hard to see the revolving HR door usher out so much talent. We have lost all but one of our managers since the pandemic. Regardless of who is at the helm, VIU sees the value in providing a stable presence for VIs. This will help to build trust and improve the standing of our current dynamic. By organizing, we have already been able to better share information and build community with one another.
We believe VIs should be treated fairly and consistently in all aspects of work. Decisions about policy changes that impact VI workflow should be passed through the lens of a VI. Performance expectations should be informed by the experience of VIs. Disciplinary action should be transparent and include a representative for the VI. Union representation through VIU is one step in working toward improving the current imbalance.
Often companies respond to discussions in our field about unionization with great PR that paints a much more positive picture of a future without a union. We’ve seen this time and time again with Sorenson and Convo certainly doesn’t lack any creative talent on the marketing side.
"For the two years I was there we were promised it would get better. It just kept getting worse and worse."
– Former Convo Interpreter
How do you hope to see this impact the larger interpreting industry?
VRS providers are beholden to the FCC as a regulating body. There is currently very little action that can be taken by VIs to advocate for themselves. Pay rates do not have to change, disciplinary action can escalate at the whim of a manager, a “readiness percentage” dictates how much of every hour you must be taking calls or terminated; this is all to say that the system is arbitrary and can be overhauled. As the frontline staff, and an ironically underrepresented voice in the conversation, a union would elevate our needs. Due to loosened regulations during the onset of the pandemic, VRS providers have benefitted from having at least half of their staff working from home. A major consequence is the increase in working in isolation. This has only further stifled our ability to information share. Unionizing has rekindled connections with VIs across the country! We have already seen interest pick up in our greater community. Scholars and interpreting practitioners, as well as leaders in the community have signed our petition. This movement is only picking up momentum and is sure to track across the greater interpreting field. We hope that interpreters feel inspired by our campaign and start talking to their colleagues and communities about what they can do to advocate for better terms and working conditions.
I hope to see protections in place for video interpreters so that we can continue providing quality service to our consumers without injury or burnout.
– Reid Michael
VRS providers are reimbursed monthly at a set rate by the FCC. There is anywhere from $40-50 million paid out monthly since the pandemic to all providers. This allows for a relatively predictable income stream. We also see VRS providers expanding to provide community interpreting, and VRI services. Since the pandemic, overhead costs have shrunk for VRS providers as more VIs are working from home. And yet, there is still a push for higher reimbursement rates from the FCC by VRS providers. Anecdotally across the industry, we see pay raises that severely lag behind basic inflation and the rising cost of living.
All of this is to posit, where else should the revenue go if not to the frontline VI staff who are alone maintaining a bilingual nation-wide relay operation?
I would be hard pressed to say that guaranteed raises for VIs would threaten the sustainability of any VRS provider. It’s reasonable to say that there would be a loss in revenue for shareholders if rates stay the same. I still personally advocate for rate increases across the board in order to invest in the sustainability of a VI and their longevity.
In any pay negotiation, VIU believes that multiple factors should determine someone’s hourly rate. Depending on someone’s background and relative achievements, they should be compensated appropriately. By assessing the whole VI and their contributions, we can work toward better equity in pay.
While VRS providers continue to expand their services into community interpreting, their Deaf callers are waiting in a queue for a video interpreter. It’s no secret that VRS interpreters fill their schedules with community work when possible in an effort to escape call centers and try to interact with the community. The fallacy that their expansion into the community doesn’t impact the VRS queue is perhaps only presented to those outside of the industry. For insiders, the lack of support on the phone lines has clear and fixable causes. Those solutions however would be at direct odds with the priorities of the provider: profit.
I hope that VIU causes a ripple effect in the VRS industry. Deaf/HoH people deserve a better experience with VRS, and interpreters deserve a career that supports longevity and growth. It is apparent that without action from employees and the community as a whole, VRS companies will continue to mistreat interpreters, and put profits over caller experience.
– Sage Klem
As with any great system, it is only as strong as its weakest part. Interpreters within the Convo system are beginning to feel the stress of maintaining the machine. As experts in the arena of their practice within the four walls of a cubicle over countless calls, they have the opportunity to bring the real experience to the table. They’re finally doing just that. With criticism of the company taking a back seat to support of that once great system, they are offering Convo an incredible opportunity. They are offering a collaboration with open arms not just with a pool of interpreters but with a concise, single voice among them that will serve to vote in the best interest of their employees and customers. It’s easy to overlook the fact that interpreters are the single customer facing front receiving the most praise, criticism, questions and commentary about the provider. They are also the closest to one another’s concerns and questions regarding changes within the company. Most importantly they are the one thing standing between an 80% speed of answer rate under 1 minute and the subsidy the federal government pays to Convo for services. Without support in place, their workforce could never expect to succeed at the quality callers have come to expect. This union is offering a solution to Convo that makes all parties a winner. The callers get the best quality interpreting they’ve come to know and love, the company can continue to scale and grow while their interpreters can develop and become the best practitioners they can be.
For these reasons, the most logical choice would be to support a union that is able to provide negotiable requests to the company based on collective experience. While the goal of any union is to support the workforce in improved conditions when necessary; Convo’s union will be in a unique position as they are working to improve the experience of callers. As many interpreters signing cards for the union have proclaimed online, Convo is interpreters. With the success of their interpreters comes the success of the organization in providing incredible services to its incredible callers.
Becoming a union organizer really takes two things: passion and commitment. The very things that brought us all to Convo in the first place. The rest can be picked up along the way.
– Matt Salerno
I think it’s important to note that everyone involved in the creation of this union is in fact a Convo interpreter. From what I’ve seen, your members are of varying experience level as well. I think it’s very important to note that the work you’re doing wasn’t assigned to you, you’ve created this union simply as practitioners.
VIU members are Convo VIs, and throughout this process we have worn many hats: the recruiter, advocate, activist, trainer, writer, web designer, and social media manager, just to name a few. None of us started as union organizers! And yet, we have effected change by stepping up to the plate and maintaining our commitment. We will do whatever it takes to make our workplace safe and sustainable so we can continue to serve our community uninterrupted. In essence, that is all it takes to become a union organizer: passion and commitment. The rest can be picked up along the way.
VIU members recognize the need for urgent change. Our work will continue to be impacted to the detriment of callers until conditions improve and stabilize. Convo VIs are highly motivated by a profound care for callers. We are open to learn, adapt, and embody the “right” skill set to meet them where they are. Our ask is that Convo will do the same for us, and begin negotiations. We come from a plurality of views, places, and lived experiences. VIU believes that diversity betters any decision-making process, and works toward true representation. We encourage everyone in this industry to get involved, regardless of their skill set or experience. Each individual has something unique to offer to the movement, and there is room for everyone at our table. Those values are paramount in upholding a fearless team.
Convo also faces a peculiar positioning in the market. Without support for this union, they stand to lose their workforce entirely which would weaken their product. That loss would mean becoming exactly what they set out to avoid: just like everyone else. Convo is the service it is because of the tireless work they invested into its founding. Without the extensive hours earning the trust of the interpreters willing to return to an industry they swore off, Convo would not exist. Without the long nights of engineering products that would change the way their callers experience VRS, Convo would not exist. Without their bold revolutionary thinking and unabashed approach to an industry they utilized as Deaf callers themselves, Convo would not exist. Without this union, the Convo we know and love cannot exist.
This article could have never been possible without the incredible people of the Deaf community. I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you for offering me an invitation to this work. It is in that same spirit of gratitude that I offer my support to a union that will support a better future of services I’ve been lucky enough to provide.
Thank you, for using me & thank you for using Convo.
In solidarity – Interpreter #5346
Support the Video Interpreters United Union
 Convo Press Release, Horowitz 2009 https://www.prweb.com/releases/2009/05/prweb2441304.htm
 DeafVee Journal, 2020 https://deafvee.org/2020/11/01/convo-relay-from-humans-to-numbers/?fbclid=IwAR0FWLFH5yk6rc8JTUgeFkoG2qNiJo1vftzIhIauBS9lxs3a2LUE0fg0XBA
Global Market Insights https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/telecommunication-relay-service-market-to-hit-6b-by-2027-global-market-insights-inc-301240404.html