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‘Every Day is Sign-a-Card Day:’ How One Local is Growing During COVID-19

Photo credit: AFSCME Council 28
‘Every Day is Sign-a-Card Day:’ How One Local is Growing During COVID-19
By Mila Myles ·

Even in the best of times, organizing can be tough work. Add in a global pandemic, and growing your local union can seem impossible. Yet over the last few months, a group of interpreters in Washington state hasn't let the COVID-19 crisis slow them down.

“Every day is sign-a-card day,” said Milena Calderari-Waldron, a Spanish interpreter and fo­­rmer recording secretary for Interpreters United (AFSCME Local 1671). A part of the Washington Federation of State Employees (Council 28), the local represents hundreds of interpreters who contract with state agencies to provide residents with language interpretation for medical and other appointments.

Over the last two months, Interpreters United welcomed another 200 members and signed up another 200 nonunion interpreters as part of a new organizing drive. Member leaders attribute their success to frequent communication with their peers and a proactive and engaging approach to addressing the effects of the pandemic.

For starters, when it became apparent that COVID-19 would radically transform members’ lives and the way they deliver interpretive services, the local immediately circulated a survey. Hundreds of members provided feedback, expressing fear of losing work and exposing themselves, their families and their patients to the coronavirus.

“I haven't worked since March, and basically, my agency is not sending any more jobs to interpreters due to appointment cancellations and closure of the clinics," said Adriana Pelayo, a union member. “I used to be able to do four or five appointments a day, but now it’s just four to five a week. It's a big difference.”

As workloads plummeted, it was clear they needed to return to the bargaining table.

The union’s first priority was to ensure Washingtonians had safe access to a language interpreter. That’s when Interpreters United negotiated a change to Medicaid and social services appointments, clearing the way for interpreters to provide their services safely over the phone and through video – but they didn’t stop there.

Thanks to their survey, member leaders knew that Pelayo’s story wasn't unique – it was the norm, as many interpreters were losing their primary source of income.

“That's when we realized that there was real desperation,” said Calderari-Waldron. “That's how the step-by-step guide came to be.”

Interpreters United compiled a detailed guide on how interpreters could apply for unemployment benefits in Washington state. The local hosted virtual seminars with unemployment specialists from another AFSCME affiliate, Local 443, to walk members through the unemployment application process and held town halls to hear directly from interpreters on the front lines.

“We’re taking care of a desperate need, and only our union was able to do that,” said Calderari-Waldron.

Nonmembers had taken notice, seeing the power of the union difference firsthand.

They especially noticed the union difference as Interpreters United continued to fight the outsourcing of jobs. The local is now running a campaign to ensure that all publicly funded interpreting appointments in Washington state are available to credentialed, in-state interpreters.

By offering essential resources, fighting for fair wages, and frequently communicating with members, Interpreters United is not only surviving during COVID-19, it is thriving. And for members like Pelayo, this assistance and other union-only benefits are essential.

“I feel very blessed, lucky, and grateful to have Interpreters United, WFSE, helping me to apply for the unemployment benefits,” Pelayo said. “It really did make my life easier.”

Learn more about the safety and economic protections AFSCME members in Washington have secured during the COVID-19 pandemic at

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