Medical interpreters unite


Medical interpreters, now in Oregon AFSCME, celebrate their union win. (Photos courtesy Oregon AFSCME)

By Don McIntosh

The State of Oregon on April 23 recognized a union for as many as 500 medical interpreters who translate for Medicaid patients who don’t speak English.

Because the interpreters are independent contractors, they wouldn’t normally have a legal process to unionize, except that Oregon AFSCME helped pass a bill in 2019, HB 2231, that made unionization possible. Under the law, interpreters who are hired through a registry maintained by the Oregon Health Authority can unionize.

About 250 interpreters signed cards to join Oregon AFSCME, but the exact number in the new bargaining unit isn’t known. Alma Raya, an organizer with Oregon AFSCME, said that’s because the list of roughly 800 names on the registry includes several hundred who are no longer working as interpreters. Raya estimates 300 to 500 people on the list are actively working. 

Efforts to contact interpreters on the list began in January 2020, but slowed because of the pandemic.

Maria Fiallos, who works as a medical interpreter for Spanish speakers, says she and other interpreters started talking about unionizing more than three years ago, before the law was passed. Medical interpreters in Washington had won big improvements through a similar process. Today the Washington interpreters make $42 an hour for their work, while the Oregon interpreters make $18 to $25 an hour. And because they’re independent contractors, that’s it—no benefits of any kind. Fiallos figures they have nowhere to go but up.

“The hardest part is yet to come,” Raya says—contract negotiations.



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