June 28, 2011

Interpreters ratify contract with 99% "yes" vote!

Interpreters (from left) Narscisa Hodges, Magde Rojas and Kathy Guttromson mark the historic 99% ratification of their first contract after ballot count at WFSE/AFSCME HQ in Olympia today.

Federation-represented medical interpreters today ratified their first-ever – and groundbreaking – contract with the state with a 99 percent yes vote.

The vote was 256 to accept and 3 to reject, with 30 ballots voided. This first two-year collective bargaining agreement takes effect July 1.

It’s the first-ever such agreement in the nation for independent contract interpreters.

We’ll have much more in the coming weeks and months on the personal impact of this victory.

But in the big picture, it stands as a moral victory for some 2,000 medical interpreters under contract with the state – many of whom are first-generation Americans seeking the American dream of freedom and fairness.

The pact covers about 2,000 independent interpreters under contract with the state. These “language access providers” help doctors and others communicate to patients and clients for whom English is a second language.

The program came about because of a civil rights lawsuit settlement. Federal law requires that health care providers ensure their Medicaid patients can communicate with doctors. Without the state program, doctors and hospitals would shoulder the costs of hiring interpreters proficient in dozens of languages. And those costs could be passed along to consumers, driving up already high medical costs.

One of the goals of the unionized interpreters is to streamline the program and keep overall health costs low.

In combination with 2011 legislation, the interpreters’ contract reforms an archaic and costly brokerage system where middlemen sap up millions of state and federal dollars before they ever get to interpreters providing the services required by federal law. Ending the costly brokerage system will free up necessary funds; more savings will come from a new online system and resulting scheduling efficiencies. This comes even with a 24 percent budget cut. That current system ends Jan. 1 when a new delivery system for medical interpreter services will start.

The new agreement also aims to retain qualified and quality interpreters. Under their first-ever contract, the state medical interpreters achieved improved work rights and minimum hourly pay of $30. The contract provides an agreement to return to the table to discuss economic compensation after the brokerage system ends in January.

The interpreters began their grassroots campaign to win a contract nearly two years ago. They objected to more taxpayer dollars going to middlemen – an estimated 44 percent of the budget – plus bureaucracy and poor treatment by brokers and agencies. They won union rights from the Legislature in 2010, voted to make WFSE/AFSCME their union and began the groundbreaking contract talks.

The interpreters will use their new contract to continue their fight to maintain quality services in the face of budget cuts.

The interpreters’ comprehensive campaign that included winning the new contract has lowered administrative costs from 44 percent to 28 percent. The union provided data showing the state’s assumptions – based on the number of medical appointments and inflation -- were unnecessarily high. The union will continue to push for administrative costs closer to those for Medicaid of about 4 percent.

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