No Raise in 17 Years — Massachusetts Court Interpreters Plan February 2023 Walkout

Massachusetts Court Interpreters Plan February 2023 Walkout

Massachusetts per diem court interpreters have planned a walkout in response to “silence from officials” regarding stagnant wages. 

Regional news website MassLive.com reported that per diem rates have not changed from 2006 levels, which vary based on qualifications.

Certified per diem court interpreters currently receive USD 300 for a full day’s work and USD 200 for a half day. The rates are USD 200 and USD 125, respectively, for screened interpreters and trained interpreters who meet the minimum requirements for a court interpreter.

By contrast, Federal Court interpreters started 2023 with raises to their per diem rates. Full-day rates range from USD 556 for Federally certified interpreters to USD 350 for non-certified interpreters; half-day rates, from USD 320 to USD 190.

According to the MassLive.com article, the Massachusetts Trial Court Office of Language Access uses approximately 157 interpreters, of which 92 work per diem. Of those, at least 20 plan to participate in the February 6-10, 2023 walkout. (They will still have the option to interpret via Zoom during the walkout.)

The walkout marks the latest in a series of demonstrations, planned or enacted, by state court interpreters over compensation. 

Interpreters in California’s Region 2 — an area that includes Marin, San Francisco, Monterey, Sonoma, and Napa counties — started a strike in March 2022 in response to stalled contract negotiations over wages, which were last increased in 2017.

Colorado court interpreters threatened a two-day walkout in May 2022 over a USD 10 increase in hourly pay. The group later decided to call off the strike “in order to negotiate in ‘good faith,’” the Denver Post reported

Massachusetts Trial Court spokesperson Jennifer Donahue told MassLive.com that she expects a new compensation rate for per diem interpreters, retroactive to January 1, 2023, to be announced “in the next 30 days.”

‘Out of Sync’ with the Economy

Certified interpreter Mercy Cevallos’s January 2023 petition, addressed to Gov. Maura Healey, Raise Our Per Diem Salaries; Let Us Meet Increases in Living Costs, has 817 signatures as of January 31, 2023

“We are totally out of sync with the present-day economy, and not as a result of our actions or choices,” the petition states. It goes on to explain that as qualified interpreters leave the field due to inadequate pay, staff shortages mean work becomes more demanding for the remaining interpreters.

Per diem Japanese interpreter Maiyim Baron commented that new interpreters do not want to take over these jobs. 

“We are paid virtually NOTHING for our travel time and expense, and have been paid the same amount for our work since 2006,” Baron wrote. “That is now worth about 50% less than it was.”

Seventy-six-year-old Bonnie Page added that interpreters also take continuing education courses at their own expense, all to improve their skills and “do our absolute best for the limited English population of Massachusetts.”

Double-Edged Sword

Inevitably, discussions about interpreter compensation in the US revive the worker status debate: Would interpreters be better off as employees?

The Federal government is currently considering the question from different angles. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would define independent contractors as performing work outside the hiring entity’s usual business, passed through the US House of Representatives before stalling in the Senate.

In response, the Department of Labor decided to reexamine the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and whether the rules differentiating employees from independent contractors should change. 

The language industry was heavily represented in the Department’s June 2022 virtual public forums on the subject. Many participants spoke about the havoc wreaked by California’s gig-worker bill, AB5, before the State Senate approved exemptions for translators and interpreters in August 2020.

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In October 2022, the DoL introduced a new rule, Employee or Independent Contractor Classification Under the FLSA. The proposed rule, which offers guidance for determining work status, is actually intended to replace the Department of Labor’s Independent Contractor Rule, which went into effect in March 2021.

The proposed rule accrued more than 54,000 public comments, many from translators and interpreters worried that new guidelines will disrupt the US language industry’s current working model. The final rule will likely not be published until June 2023, at the earliest.

Speaking to Slator about the proposed rule, Association of Language Companies Advocacy Consultant Bill Rivers pointed out that employment does not guarantee medical insurance, retirement benefits, sick leave, or vacation time. 

“Those benefits depend very much on the laws of the state where the employee works, on the labor market, and so on,” he said.

Nor does it guarantee higher earnings. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (US BLS) showed that translators and interpreters not working as independent contractors saw a dip in wages from 2020–2021.

The US BLS May 2021 Occupational Outlook Handbook found a more than 6% decrease in both median annual pay (USD 52,330 vs. USD 49,110) and median hourly wage (USD 25.16 vs. USD 23.61).