Nearly three years after California freelance interpreters and translators won an exemption from gig worker bill AB 5, court interpreters find themselves embroiled in yet another battle over well-intended bills with potentially dramatic consequences.
Two proposed bills are intended to solve California courts’ challenges in retaining qualified interpreters.
The California Federation of Interpreters sponsored Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco’s AB 1032, which would modify an existing framework governing the employment relationships between trial courts and court interpreters.
In a June 28, 2023 letter signed by more than 75 interpreters, the Coalition of Working California Interpreters urged the California Senate Judiciary Committee Chair and Vice Chair to reject AB 1032, describing the bill as “a hodgepodge of misguided provisions.”
The Coalition took CFI to task for not seeking input from other stakeholders, such as working interpreters, legal and language access advocates, and populations with significant rates of limited English proficiency (LEP).
“To garner support from interpreters and community organizations, the sponsors are promoting the bill as a pathway to benefitted union jobs for relay interpreters and contractors,” the letter stated. “In fact the bill does not provide benefitted positions for either and dangerously deteriorates language access for indigenous communities.”
Interpreting languages of lesser diffusion — more specifically, indigenous Mexican languages — features prominently in AB 1032.
According to a July 8, 2023 analysis by the Senate Judiciary, several such languages, including Mixteco, Mixteco Alto, Mixteco Bajo, and Triqui, have entered the top 30 most-interpreted languages in California since 2014.
Presumably, to meet the growing need for interpreters in these languages, the bill would eliminate restrictions that limit the instances in which untested relay interpreters may work. The Coalition argued that this would create a separate and unequal standard of justice for LEP speakers of indigenous languages, and would set “a dangerous precedent for all linguistic minorities.”
A group of Mayan-language court interpreters offered their own suggestions for increasing the number of registered interpreters: California should encourage and provide funding for direct (into English) interpreters, and create Spanish-language tests for relay interpreters.
One Small Victory (So Far)
There is, however, something of a silver lining for AB 1032, in that the threat to independent contractors has been defanged, at least for now.
“As originally introduced, AB 1032 completely eliminated current provisions in the law allowing courts to use independent contractors when they don’t have enough employees to cover the work,” certified court interpreter Mary Lou Aranguren told Slator.
Along with fellow former union representative Daniel Navarro, a state and federally certified court interpreter, Aranguren headed up a coalition called the California Alliance of Legal Interpreters (CALI) to express opposition to AB 1032.
The group collaborated with the American Translators Association (ATA) and the Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California (CoPTIC) to share its analysis of the bill with other interpreters.
“Once the broader interpreter community understood […] there was a lot of push back,” Aranguren said. “The authors restored the status quo and removed those changes from the bill“.
The Training Program No One Asked For
AB 432, sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Fong, proposes the Court Interpreters Workforce Pilot Program. If passed, AB 432 would provide training for up to 10 participants in four courts per year, with the goal of producing more court interpreters.
The ATA has objected to AB 432 in several letters to the California State Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.
“This bill ignores the underlying reality about why the courts have had trouble attracting applicants for employment: The salaries offered are lower than what interpreters can make in other legal or conference settings, where their skills are more highly valued,” ATA President Madalena Sánchez Zampaulo wrote. “As evidenced by the number of certified court interpreters in California’s state registry, there isn’t a lack of qualified talent.”
ATA Advocacy Committee Chair Ben Karl agreed with Sánchez Zampaulo’s take. “The latest version requires training program graduates to work for the court for three years or reimburse the court for the cost of the training program, without addressing the most pressing needs facing the courts,” he told Slator. “Until pay increases, the courts will have trouble filling their needs gap.”
“The salaries offered are lower than what interpreters can make in other legal or conference settings, where their skills are more highly valued” — Madalena Sánchez Zampaulo, President, ATA
Indeed, court interpreters along California’s west coast decided to strike in March 2023 to protest depressed wages, joining colleagues in Nebraska, Colorado, and Massachusetts.
Among Sánchez Zampaulo’s recommendations: Increase court interpreter compensation; offer grants to aspiring court interpreters for existing training programs; reimburse continuing education expenses for interpreters; and offer oral exams more than twice a year.
“The cost of additional exam sittings is surely less than creating an entirely new program to meet goals already being addressed by existing frameworks,” she pointed out.
In a July 13, 2023 letter to the same Committee Chair and Vice Chair, Sánchez Zampaulo repeated the same suggestions, explaining simply, “The amendments made to the bill on June 26, 2023 did not address the concerns that we raised in [the previous] letter, and therefore, we must oppose AB 432.”
A Committee hearing date for AB 1032 is currently scheduled for August 14, 2023. AB 432 will be heard in the Senate Judiciary once the summer recess ends in August 2023. Karl told Slator that both chambers will have until August 31, 2023, to pass any bills, with a September 30, 2023 deadline for Governor Gavin Newsom to sign bills into law or to veto them.
“If interpreters do not speak up, this bill is likely to pass,” Karl said of AB 432. “If they share their views with their lawmakers, those same lawmakers will be able to represent the voices of their constituents, both interpreters and LEP individuals, and vote accordingly.”
CoPTIC President Lorena Ortiz-Schneider drew parallels between the two proposed bills and AB 5, the impetus behind CoPTIC’s founding, writing in an op-ed, “Together, these two bills […] will decimate the ability of professionals with hard-earned state credentials and even certifications to work in California.”