“At a time where we could be more flexible, we’re choosing not to be.”

Katerina Borghi has a love of language. The Californian native first discovered it in elementary school when she began learning to speak Spanish. That love turned into a passion and then a career. 

After graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish, Borghi traveled to Spain where she began teaching English to students. After two years, the then 24-year-old decided to go in a new direction.

“One of my best friends’ mother worked for the State Department as French interpreter, so after teaching English I thought, what else can I do with language?” Borghi said. “I love speaking Spanish and languages so I thought that maybe I want to do what she does.”

With that in mind, Borghi applied and was accepted into the prestigious Monterrey Institute of International Studies, where she graduated with a master of arts in translation and interpretation. After graduation, she decided it was time to return to the United States. Borghi settled in Arizona with a job as an in-house court interpreter for Maricopa County, the fourth largest county in the nation.

She dreamed of opening her own interpreting business in her home state. After a series of moves, Borghi ended up back where she started: California. She had no client base and relied on colleagues in the interpreting world to help her get started. This time, instead of a full-time job, she worked as an independent contractor.

“Traditionally, Interpreting and translating has been a freelance career, just because interpreters are needed whenever and wherever,” Borghi explained. “They need to be ready at a moment’s notice.”

She slowly began to build her client base and got on the roster of various agencies that connect freelance interpreters with gigs. “I would get a lot of last minute calls and be ready to go into court or go to an assignment wherever I would get the call. I would set my own rates, give my terms and conditions, go do it, and invoice them. I worked about 3 days per week.” 

Borghi was working hard to make her dream of owning a business a reality when California passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), also known as the “gig worker law” and her plans came to a screeching halt. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic complicated her situation even more. 

“It’s like a sucker punch,” she said. “You’ve already been beaten up [by AB5] and COVID is like the sucker punch on top.”  

A Rude Wake Up Call

California’s AB5 law passed in 2019. Sponsored by assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-80), the bill claims to ensure that independent contractors are classified as employees with “the basic rights and protections they deserve under the law, including a minimum wage, workers’ compensation if they are injured on the job, unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, and paid family leave”. It’s been heralded as a protection for independent contractors, but many of them disagree. They say AB5 has ripped the state apart and is destroying its economy. 

“As a working professional and as someone who spent a lot of time and money investing and creating my own business, I don’t feel that I need those protections,” Borghi said. “I set my own rates, I have a flexible schedule, I have my own insurance. I wish they would leave us out of it.”

Some occupations like vocalists, freelance writers, lawyers, photographers, and others are exempt from the law, provided they meet certain requirements. Others like court interpreters, social workers, American Sign Language interpreters, court reporters, actors, and many more are non-exempt. This process has left many industries, particularly those without political connections, scrambling to try to receive exemptions.

“Being my own boss, no one can force me right now into being in an unsafe situation,” Borghi said. “No one can force me to go into court and possibly expose myself to COVID-19 without proper PPE. That’s a big issue right now with interpreters. As my own boss, I can say I don’t feel safe, and I don’t want to do it.”

Borghi said that she’s worried what eliminating the ability to work as an independent contractor would do to her profession. “In general, there are not a lot of full-time employment [opportunities], especially for certain specializations. A lot of courts in rural areas don’t have that consistent need for a full-time interpreter. There’s no full-time position for conference interpreters.” 

Her biggest concern is the effect that AB5 may have on those who need interpretation services if there are fewer individuals like her to fill their needs. 

“I don’t know how the employee model is going to satisfy all of those language access needs,” Borghi said. “I myself only satisfy the needs for 10 different entities while my colleagues across the state could satisfy the needs of thousands of individuals.”

Borghi spent nearly $2500 to set up her interpreting business, but now she can’t hire additional freelancers to work for her, which severely limits the number of clients she can take. 

The B-prong of the ABC Test, a stringent standard established by the Dynamex court decision to determine where a worker is an employee or independent contractor, prevents hiring an independent contractor if that person performs work that is inside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business. Even if, in Borghi’s case, they speak and interpret a language other than Spanish. 

“There are clients who need certain languages, and I can’t fulfill that directly,” she said. Borghi would need to contract with interpreters who speak other languages for her business. And, taking it one step further, the B-prong requirement also “prevents [her] from contracting colleagues since they fall within the usual course of her business.” 

Before AB5, Borghi was working with 10 agencies. Now, she’s down to two. And COVID-19 only made things worse. Even though she has medical interpreting experience that she could’ve put to use during the pandemic, because of AB5 companies are not hiring Californians. 

“I could at this point be on the frontline helping to interpret for California because we have such a diverse population, and I know from the status that it’s disproportionately affecting Latinos and Latin Americans,” she said. “I feel I could be of service, but I just haven’t been able to find the work. I feel it’s being shipped out elsewhere.” 

Using Her Voice to Demand Change

Borghi is using her voice to fight back against AB5. She’s met with her representatives and is a member of the Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California (COPTIC). The self-described ‘life-long Democrat’ admits that she feels disillusioned with her party for their support of this law.

“For me, this isn’t about party lines,” she said. “I’ve gone with other colleagues to speak with politicians and sometimes I get the feeling that it’s paying lip service. I’ve heard over and over  again, ‘talk to the author of the bill’.” 

On the federal level, the PRO Act (a nationwide version of AB5) is supported by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“As a lifelong Democrat, I want to be in agreement with his platform but I can’t,” Borghi said. “The nation is watching California right now and trying to figure out if they really want that in their state. I really hope those states reconsider.”

Her representative, Sen. John MoorLach (R-CA), introduced legislation–SB990–to suspend AB5 during the pandemic. But it was tabled. 

“At a time where we could be more flexible, we’re choosing not to be,” she said. 

Do you have a story about how AB5 or similar independent contracting laws have affected your ability to work? Share your story here.