14 Mar The Real Story on Court Interpreter Pay
After 17 years without a raise, the per-diem court interpreters in Massachusetts got an inflation adjustment of 50% but not a raise. It sounds great, but it isn’t. In fact, the implementation of this long-delayed inflation adjustment has been accompanied by a significant change in staffing, reducing the role of per-diem interpreters in favor of a dramatic increase in the number of staff interpreters. With these fast-track policy changes, the courts appear to be pushing back against the current per-diem interpreters’ demanding a living wage.
The Massachusetts Association of Court Interpreters (MACI) tried everything short of a walkout, but it took a walkout to bring the Trial Court to the negotiating table with an offer that interpreters could accept. Nevertheless, it was a hollow victory.
In February, per-diem court interpreters staged a walkout for not having received an increase in pay for 17 years, while the value of the 2006 dollar declined to $0.50. The walkout was not cancelled after all, even though the Trial Court offered a cost-of-living adjustment, bringing the current pay to the same value as the 2006 dollar. But this was no actual increase. At the same time, the Trial Court began to reduce the number of days of work for certified and screened per diem court interpreters, particularly for Spanish and Portuguese, the two most frequently requested languages in the courts, while at the same time advertising openings for new per-diem Spanish and Portuguese court interpreters and having recourse to telephonic services.
The real victims of the most recent measures taken by the court administrators are not the professional interpreters but the LEP individuals who come seeking justice from the court system. In 2022, there were 159,953 requests for interpreter services in the Commonwealth, 66% of which were for the Spanish language and 16% for Portuguese.
Per-diem interpreters used to work a full day for five days a week before the “negotiated” pay adjustment; now, some are contracted for half-days only two times a week, on average. Some of the best and most experienced certified interpreters are leaving the field because there is not enough work for them to make a decent living.
The vast majority of per diem interpreters have been working for the Trial Court for well over 15 years. The approximately 120 Massachusetts per-diem court interpreters are vetted, highly skilled, experienced, and specialized. They work all over the Commonwealth in more than 100 languages. Quality language access for court users is necessary to ensure equal and meaningful access to justice. The work of per-diem interpreters extends beyond the walls of the courtroom, to public defenders’, court investigators’, court clinicians’, and district attorneys´ offices.
The Trial Court’s Office of Language Access included a request for 50 additional full-time staff interpreters in its FY 2024 budget proposal. There are currently about 65 full-time staff court interpreters. Adding 50 more will increase the expenditure on benefits (medical/dental insurance, personal/medical leave, pension, disability, among others). Per diem interpreters render the same services to the courts without getting any of those benefits. Whether the Legislature and the Governor will approve this funding is not known at this time. In the meantime, experienced per-diem interpreters are working fewer hours while demand for their services keeps growing. To fill the gap, the Office of Language Access (OLA) at the Trial Court has started contracting agencies from other states and out-of-state interpreters to replace the per-diem court interpreters who reside and work in Massachusetts.
We would suggest that the Trial Court focus on improving the certification monitoring system, mentorships for new interpreters, and overall working conditions, particularly for remote interpretation.
From the vantage point of per-diem interpreters in Massachusetts, the Trial Court’s offer to adjust for inflation over the last 17 years falls short of the per-diem interpreters’ request to improve their take-home pay and working conditions. Per-diem interpreters deserve better.
Anahit Flanagan has two native languages, Armenian and Russian. She is a Massachusetts Trial Court per-diem interpreter and a medical interpreter certified by the National Board (NBCMI) and the Commission (CCHI). She has 49 years of experience in teaching and has long been a language coach for medical and legal/immigration interpreting courses for students from the U.S. and other countries. She has developed the curriculum for language-learning programs for all levels of language proficiency and is a trained Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL OPI) tester. Volunteer work includes being a NAJIT Board Member (Director), an active member and contributor to the Massachusetts Association of Court interpreters (MACI), a member of the New England Translators Association (NETA), and a past member of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages (AATSEEL). Contact: email@example.com
Main photo taken from “You Have Already Won!” by Olivian Breda from Olivian.ro, under the CC BY 4.0 license. Body photo taken from “Modern IT Management: How to negotiate better” from Langerman Panta Rhei: All about modern IT Management for large enterprises, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.