More than two hundred Los Angeles County court interpreters demanding graduated pay increases went on strike Wednesday, disrupting cases throughout the system, court officials said.
Interpreters picketed at several courthouses around the county and pledged to stay out as long as necessary.
“Our services are absolutely indispensable,” said Karen Stevens, a Spanish-language interpreter picketing in front of the downtown Criminal Courts building. “Our work should be recognized.”
About 240 staff interpreters and nearly a dozen contract interpreters did not show up for work as scheduled Wednesday, court spokesman Allan Parachini said.
Judges responded to the strike by continuing cases and rearranging their daily schedules. No courtrooms were closed.
“Effects of this are being felt throughout the county,” Parachini said.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court also planned, as provided by law, to provisionally certify as interpreters about three dozen court employees who are fluent in another language and have taken some training courses. Parachini said the court is consulting with the general counsel at the Administrative Office of the Courts to determine what step to take next.
The interpreters working for Los Angeles County courts received a 2.5% pay raise last year and were offered a 4% increase last month, raising their salaries to more than $73,000.
But the interpreters want a graduated pay scale that would give them 22% salary increases over five years. They say other court employees receive such pay raises and that they deserve to as well. The money for the increases would come from funds allocated in the state budget, they said.
“It’s a question of fairness,” said Alex Abella, who has been working as a Spanish-language court interpreter for 20 years. “We don’t want to do this. They have forced us to do this.”
Union officials with the California Federation of Interpreters estimated that more than 90% of the roughly 400 interpreters in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties participated in the strike. Interpreters, who were independent contractors until two years ago, translate in dozens of languages, including Vietnamese, Russian, Armenian and Hebrew.
Japanese-language interpreter Nao Ikeuchi said he could earn a much higher salary working for private agencies or the federal courts. And if interpreters don’t get a graduated salary schedule, Ikeuchi said he might do just that.
“They are not treating us like professionals,” he said.
Stephanie Freidenreich, a public defender who works on felony trials in downtown Los Angeles, said that although her cases weren’t affected Wednesday, she was worried about the next several days if the strike continues. Provisionally certified interpreters may have the best intentions, but their interpretation may not be completely accurate, she said.
“I would certainly want to wait to be sure that my client understood the proceedings and that my client and I were able to effectively communicate,” she said.
The state Constitution ensures that anyone charged with a crime has access to a court-appointed interpreter. Interpreters often translate for witnesses and victims as well.
Stevens said interpreters are the voice of those who cannot speak English.
“It’s their opportunity to be heard,” she said. “That couldn’t happen without interpreters.”
Interpreters are already in high demand, union officials said. And Stevens said that if the court doesn’t offer a better salary package, it will become even harder for the courts to recruit and retain staff.
Joseph Esposito, head deputy of the narcotics division of the district attorney’s office, said quality interpreters are critical in such a diverse place as Los Angeles County.
“You don’t get to choose who your witnesses or your victims are,” he said. “A choice of a word could, in some instances, make a difference for jurors.”
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Pay scale plan
The California Federation of Interpreters is seeking a substantial salary increase that it says is necessary to address an ongoing shortage of court interpreters. The proposed salary structure would be based on longevity.
The union said that the majority of interpreters have worked for 10 to 20 years but earn the same as new employees.
The union proposes increases of 5.5% after one year, two years, 3 1/2 years and 5 years to total 22%.