In an effort to bring attention to pay inequities among court employees, court interpreters walked out of their jobs and advocated for fair pay outside the San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City Wednesday.
For the past eight months, court interpreters say they have been locked in negotiations with a committee representing the 13 Northern California counties included in the regional contract that determines their wages. Because their benefits are determined by the counties where they work, the group, which is largely represented by the union California Federation of Interpreters, said interpreters have not been granted wage increases in line with recent increases granted to other court employees.
Carol Palacio has been certified as a court interpreter for the San Mateo County Superior Court for 18 years, and said the courts’ refusal to negotiate a wage offset to compensate interpreters for recent increases in pension contributions some counties have implemented caused her and nine other colleagues to walk out Wednesday.
“Our members are struggling as it is, just to make ends meet,” she said. “They refuse to bargain that at all.”
Palacio, a member of the interpreters’ regional bargaining committee, said an October decision to require employees in San Mateo County courts to increase their pension contribution cut down the take-home pay for county interpreters. While other court employees had the ability to negotiate with the San Mateo County Superior Court to obtain increased wages to offset this change, Palacio said interpreters were bound to the wages set by their regional contract.
T. Michael Yuen, court executive officer of the San Francisco Superior Court and chair of the regional system of courts negotiating with the interpreters’ union, said the San Mateo County Superior Court could only provide interpreters for 36 of the 87 matters that required them Wednesday, disrupting court proceedings, some of which were continued or continued without interpreters.
“Obviously, the strike doesn’t help,” he said. “We really would just prefer to get them back to the table.”
Yuen said he is waiting for the union to counter a proposal the region he represents recently submitted, which could mean a 15 percent increase in wages over the next three years for some interpreters. Yuen said a salary of $76,000 could go all the way up to $89,000 in some cases at the end of three years.
Palacio said the union’s most recent counter to the region was a 25 percent increase in wages over three years, which she hoped would bring wages state interpreters make closer to those of federal and interpreters who work as contractors, and make considerably more.
“We’re just trying to lobby for pay parity,” she said.
Mary Lou Aranguren, statewide bargaining coordinator for the California Federation of Interpreters, said the San Mateo County Superior Court has seen a drop in the number of full-time interpreters from 15 to 10 in recent years, which she attributes to their stagnant wages as the cost of living rises. Aranguren has been an interpreter at the Alameda County Superior Court for 20 years, and said it’s not uncommon for courts to hire interpreters as contractors when they are short-staffed.
“They rely on a lot of contractors, and they pay the contractors a lot more money,” she said.
Aranguren said courts have been compelled to pay interpreters working as contractors market-rate wages close to the federal rate, which she said is $52 per hour. She added courts have also had to pay for the travel expenses for contract interpreters traveling to San Mateo County from the Central Valley and other remote locations, which she said doesn’t make sense when state court interpreters make an average of $36 per hour.
For Palacio, who has a son, employer-provided benefits such as health insurance and the stability of a full-time job are essential components of her compensation.
“For me, it’s not really an option to be a contractor,” she said.
Camille Taiara, chair of the California Federation of Interpreters’ Language Access Research and Advocacy Committee, said the stagnation of salaries for court interpreters over the years has threatened language access for the courts across the state. A certified interpreter for the Alameda County Superior Court since 2011, Taiara knows how challenging the road to becoming a court interpreter can be. She said it can take many years to become fluent in two languages at the level where one can discuss forensic evidence and legal terms, which makes the two-part certification exam one of the most difficult exams to pass in the state. Without the promise of fair pay in a state plagued with a rising cost of living, Taiara is worried fewer people will pursue jobs in her field.
“It makes less and less sense to go into this as a profession,” she said.
As Palacio and her colleagues wait for the five vacant spots on their team to be filled, she said their workload has increased dramatically. A recent federal review of the state court system resulting in an expansion of interpreter services to more civil matters has compounded the effect of the shortage and required the county court to hire more contract interpreters. Because they aren’t as familiar with the nuances of the county’s court system and aren’t as committed as full-time interpreters, Palacio said she has seen the services litigants receive suffer.
“It affects litigants and the quality of their experience,” she said.
Though Palacio said the interpreter’s union has requested the courts to enter mediation so the two parties can find middle ground, she isn’t hopeful the courts will agree to any conditions that open a discussion on offset wages for pension contributions. Yuen confirmed that the courts can only mediate items on which they have the legal authority to negotiate, but hoped the groups could find a resolution.
“We have every well intention of trying to get a deal,” he said. “But as with all collective bargaining, it requires there be a process.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102