Nearly two decades after their last official raise, in 2004, and nine days into a walkout, Nebraska court interpreters learned that the State Supreme Court had approved an agreement to increase rates.
“Nebraska interpreters are back to work!” freelance Spanish court interpreter Kelly Varguez posted on LinkedIn. “I am so proud of my stellar group of colleagues, and so thankful to the solidarity shown by court interpreters across the country.”
Varguez, a co-founder of the Interpreter Advocacy Nebraska steering committee, estimated that about 10 of Nebraska’s 15 Spanish interpreters participated in the first week of the walkout, plus 100% of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and about 95% of interpreters of languages of lesser diffusion.
She added, “Many of our colleagues in neighboring states refused or backed out of work [in Nebraska] in order to support our efforts.”
According to a memo from State Court Administrator Corey R. Steel seen by Slator, the State Supreme Court-approved adjustments to court interpreter fees will go into effect on July 1, 2023.
ASL and Certified Deaf interpreters gained the most, moving from USD 50 to USD 75 per hour. Certified and provisionally certified spoken language interpreters will also receive USD 75 hourly, up from USD 65. The rate for registered spoken language interpreters has increased from USD 45 per hour to USD 60, while non-certified spoken language and Deaf interpreters will receive USD 50 hourly, instead of USD 35. All interpreters will be paid a two-hour minimum for assignments.
The updated fee schedule meets some of the court interpreters’ requests, such as an hourly rate of USD 60 for non-certified interpreters. They had also hoped for USD 85 per hour for certified interpreters, and a 3% automatic yearly increase, neither of which was written into the agreement.
“It is a risk — if we lose funding, we could face rate reductions,” Varguez told Slator. “However, we decided it was a risk worth taking under the circumstances. State Senator George Dungan is already working to obtain additional funding on our behalf.”
The fee schedule and payment policy also has some caveats; namely, that the State Court Administrator may contract “with individual interpreters to perform interpretation services for a specified service area at a rate established by the contract,” including an amount “other than the established rate.”
Drama Behind the Scenes
The National Center for State Courts cites the annual cost of freelance interpreter services in Nebraska as USD 1.2m — and Nebraska’s courts do not employ any salaried interpreters.
There was plenty of back and forth among Nebraska politicians prior to the interpreters’ walkout. In January 2023, State Senator George Dungan introduced LB176 to request an additional USD 600,000 per year to support interpreter pay increases. Although the bill was amended to lower the price tag, Governor Jim Pillen still vetoed it.
The York News-Times reported that, after rumors of a walkout surfaced, the state court administration came forward with an offer, which interpreters rejected for being “only about half of what was initially requested and gave higher increases to some interpreters over others.”
Once Nebraska court interpreters initiated the walkout on June 12, 2023, they received vocal support from colleagues and professional organizations.
“Current compensation structures nationwide often do not adequately reflect [court interpreters’] professional skills, experience, and the demanding nature of their work,” the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT) wrote in a June 15, 2023 statement. “The longer compensation packages stagnate and working conditions remain difficult, court interpreters — just like any other professional — tend to become discouraged and demoralized,” and may eventually choose to pursue “more sustainable and satisfactory work elsewhere.”