SOSi Illegally Misclassified, Fired Workers, NLRB Says

Complaint has broad implications for labor movement and immigration courts

June 5, 2017 – SOS International, the company that provides interpreting services for federal immigration courts, illegally misclassified its employees as independent contractors and fired interpreters who spoke out, according to a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on May 31. 

The complaint has broad implications for the labor movement because employers in many industries misclassify workers as freelancers and independent contractors to avoid costs associated with hiring regular employees. The misclassification constitutes an unfair labor practice intended to deprive them of their labor rights, Regional Director William B. Cowen wrote.

The complaint also has significant implications for immigration courts, which are plagued by backlogs and depend on the services of qualified interpreters. “The system has been failing, but now it is reaching a tipping point,” Benjamin Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the New York Times in December.

Of those who appear in immigration court, 43 percent have no lawyer, and 89 percent involve non-English speakers.

Imagine trying to explain to a judge – without an interpreter – why, if you were sent back to your homeland, you would face torture, persecution and even death.

The interpreters who filed the complaint blame the Department of Justice for the untenable situation. Since the end of 2015, the DoJ has contracted with SOSi exclusively, but the company has been unable to provide sufficient staffing, resulting in canceled hearings. SOSi also has utilized inexperienced and unqualified interpreters and failed to undertake required background checks, the union organizers say.

“As an immigration court interpreter who takes great pride in the profession, it is good to know that the NLRB agrees that labor law safeguards are essential to the vital work done every day in court by me and fellow colleagues,” said Kathleen Morris, a Chicago area interpreter.

The NLRB complaint charges SOSi with illegally terminating union activists, improperly interrogating employees about their organizing activities, surveilling union supporters, threatening legal action, and prohibiting employees from engaging in activities associated with union organizing.

The complaint, filed by the NLRB’s LA Region, seeks an order from the full board instructing SOSi to immediately reclassify the interpreters as employees.

The NLRB also demanded reinstatement with back pay for several interpreters SOSi fired in retaliation for their union organizing activities.

“At a time when the climate is not union friendly, this is a major victory,” Hilda Estrada, a Los Angeles interpreter who accused SOSi of retaliation, told the L.A. Times. “I’m elated.”

SOSi workers are continuing their efforts, with support from the NewsGuild-CWA and the Pacific Media Workers Guild (Local 39521). If they are successful, hundreds of immigration interpreters would be eligible to bargain collectively over pay and other conditions of employment. The NewsGuild-CWA currently represents more than a thousand interpreters at courts in California and Illinois, and at a hospital in Minnesota, with the overwhelming majority in California.

The NewsGuild-CWA and Pacific Media Workers Guild issued a statement praising the issuance of the complaint. “The union will not rest until justice is served. Interpreters provide a valuable service to the courts and to their communities. They deserve dignity, respect and basic employment rights.”