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Interpreters for the deaf out of jobs

Last modified: 8/6/2010 12:00:00 AM
Thirty-five employees of a company providing video interpretation services for deaf and partially deaf people placing telephone calls were laid off when Sorenson Communications shut down its Concord office this week.

The office in the Gateway Center, 25 Hall St., was closed Wednesday by the Salt Lake City-based corporation as part of nationwide layoffs and cost-cutting prompted by a reduction in payments the firm receives from the Federal Communications Commission, a senior company official said.

'Operational adjustments were made across the board, across the company, at all levels of management,' said Paul Kershisnik, the private corporation's chief marketing officer. 'It wasn't a focused reduction in force. It was a very broad approach.'

Kershisnik declined to say how many of Sorenson's roughly 6,000 employees are being let go because the layoffs won't be finished until today. He said 'a very small number' of offices will be entirely shut down.

The Concord office was the firm's only center in New Hampshire and employed 35 people, he said, including interpreters and management.

Among the company's other spending cuts, Kershisnik said, were 'significant pay reductions' for senior executives. He said his own pay was cut more than 15 percent.

Karen Braz, 54, a Weare resident and full-time interpreter for the Manchester School District, had worked part time at Sorenson's Concord office for about 16 months. She said she was one of perhaps two dozen American Sign Language interpreters there.

She and several other employees were called into a meeting Wednesday morning with company executives and were told, 'We are closing the center as of today. You have 20 minutes to gather your things. We have boxes. That's it. You're done. Goodbye,' Braz said yesterday. 'And we were shell-shocked, to say the least.'

Other employees were told by phone, Braz said.

After leaving the office, Braz and her former co-workers went next door to Burger King, 'to have a milkshake because it was too early to go drinking,' she said.

Labor Commissioner George Copadis said the state didn't receive notification of a mass layoff from the company. Sixty days' notice is required for companies with 75 or more full-time employees in New Hampshire to shut down a facility or lay off more than a third of the company's workforce.

Sorenson Communications describes itself as the nation's leading provider of video relay service, or VRS, which allows deaf people to place and receive phone calls over the internet by means of American Sign Language. Using video equipment, the deaf person signs to an interpreter in Concord or one of Sorenson's other offices. The message is then spoken to a hearing person on the other end of the line, or vice versa.

The video-based phone system is an improvement over typing-based systems, Braz said.

'It's like night and day,' she said. 'The technology is astounding.'

But a change in how the FCC reimburses Sorenson and other VRS providers forced the company to dramatically cut its costs, Kershisnik said.

The FCC pays Sorenson to cover the cost of providing the video relay and other services in an attempt to ensure equal access to telecommunications for all Americans. But the per-minute rate for VRS of $6.24 was reduced last month to $5.07 for Sorenson and other providers with a high volume of calls.

Kershisnik said the new rate, which will be in effect for a year while the FCC conducts a broad review of its VRS policies, is less than the company's actual operating costs.

Sorenson asked the FCC to delay the new rate, but the request was denied, Kershisnik said. The company then filed an appeal with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The company's request to delay the new rate was denied in an order dated July 29.

Kershisnik said the company will continue the appeal, but the process of reviewing the FCC's new policy could take nine to 12 months.

'Since they denied our stay at the outset . . . that's when we knew that we had no recourse but to make these operational adjustments,' he said.

In a June 29 press release, Sorenson Communications warned it would have 'to make certain operational changes and cost reductions' because of the FCC's lower interim rate.

Kershisnik said the company and other providers will work with the FCC over the next year as the federal agency determines a new per-minute rate 'so that the rates can really support . . . a real strong and robust interpreting community.'

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)


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