New York Interpreters Allege Discrimination by Court System in Underpayment Lawsuit

New York Interpreter Law Suit

From California to Colorado to Massachusetts, courts in the US have been hit by interpreter strikes — whether actualized or just threatened — since early 2022.

A recent Boston Globe article reported that Massachusetts court interpreters, choosing to work within the existing system, have filed numerous complaints alleging poor working conditions and retaliation by management. 

Now, New York court interpreters are joining the fight — albeit by different means. Brooklyn-based non-profit New York Communities for Change and 29 interpreters filed a lawsuit on July 26, 2023, alleging that the court system systematically underpays interpreters.

The interpreters named in the lawsuit work in eight New York counties, including all five boroughs of New York City, and work in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Polish, and American Sign Language.

The argument: New York’s court system discriminates against interpreters and the clients they serve, who are “largely of non-United State national origin, either by birth or ancestry.” 

According to the plaintiffs, interpreters’ inordinately low pay, and the resulting “dysfunction in Justice” for New Yorkers with limited English proficiency (LEP), is a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. 

Unlike many of the interpreters involved in strikes elsewhere, the plaintiffs in New York’s class action lawsuit are all employees of the court, not independent contractors

According to the summons, the defendant, the New York Unified Court System (UCS), employs 246 full-time and part-time interpreters who work in 20 different spoken languages and American Sign Language.

The lawsuit points to the disparity in pay between New York court interpreters and other court personnel, with an emphasis on court reporters, whose work is most similar to that of interpreters.

Subhead about pay disparity/challenging work

To demonstrate that interpreting is more challenging than reporting, plaintiffs cite the lower pass rate for Spanish court interpreters (10%) versus court reporters (55%) for their respective UCS civil service exams, as well as interpreter compensation at the Federal level.

Federal court interpreters can earn between USD 120,580-156,758 for their work; their compensation exceeds that of Federal court reporters, court clerks, and court officers. 

The range for court interpreters in New York — a notoriously high cost-of-living state — is USD 60,245-85,886. That means that New York court interpreters are paid about half of what their Federal counterparts receive. 

In New York, court interpreters’ maximum compensation is 35% less than that of court reporters. But in the Federal system, interpreters earn 32% more than court reporters.

If, as the plaintiffs allege, court interpreting is a more demanding profession than court interpreting, what explains the disparity in pay? Discrimination, they say.

“Court Interpreters in the NY State Court system are largely foreign born, or second generation from foreign born families. Their clients are 100% foreign born,” documents point out. “Court Reporters are largely Caucasian, and do not come from a foreign-born background.” 

The plaintiffs want the case to result in an injunction that will set new pay scales for court interpreters.