ATA Opposes AB 432 Unless Amended
Speak Up, Take Action Now
California Assemblymember Mike Fong recently introduced AB 432, the Court Interpreters Workforce Pilot Program bill.
The bill, which you can read here, seeks to create an additional pathway for aspiring court interpreters to obtain full-time employment in California’s courts.
Indeed, creating pathways to increase the number of qualified applicants for employment as court interpreters would be a good thing. However, this bill ignores the underlying reality that the courts have had trouble attracting applicants for employment because the salaries offered are lower than what interpreters can make in other legal or conference settings where their skills are more highly valued, not because there is a lack of qualified talent. The bill may feel like a step in the right direction, but it is far too vague in its current form. At worst, it is a cynical degradation of quality language access. At best, a misguided attempt to increase the number of interpreters available to the courts.
Language professionals in California should take action now and contact their state representatives to help them understand why this bill may not have the effect Assemblymember Fong intends.
On its face, creating new pathways to increase the number of qualified applicants for employment as court interpreters is positive. However, this bill ignores multiple underlying realities, including the existence of recognized and reputable training programs across the state (and across the country), the cost of such programs, the inadequate number of state-level interpreter exam sittings, and the woefully low compensation offered to staff interpreters in the state. The California State Legislature would do well to rectify these issues, not try to reinvent the wheel with an untried and untested pilot program.
Spending money to increase current staff interpreter salaries and independent contractor fees would do much more to attract qualified, reliable candidates, without watering down the talent pool or creating redundant training programs as proposed in this bill.
Low staff interpreter compensation
Between 2007 and 2022, the average salary in Los Angeles County for certified court interpreters increased by less than 1% per year ($73,000 to $82,925). During the period from 2010 to 2020, cost of living increased by 38.7%, effectively cutting interpreter pay by more than $20,000 (their 2007 salary in 2022 dollars would be $101,944). According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), this is 9% below the median wage in Los Angeles County. Not to mention inflation, a topic on everyone’s minds these days: the dollar had an average inflation rate of 2.37% per year between 2007 and today, resulting in a cumulative price increase of 45.57%.
Qualified court interpreters across the country have been fighting for higher salaries and fees—and many are finally getting them. In fact, the federal government just increased the half-day fee for federal court-certified interpreters this year by 42%, after years with no raises.
Staff court interpreters in Region 1, which includes Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties, only just got a 20% raise after six years of fighting. This now brings their salaries more in line with those in Northern California, where the cost of living tends to be as high or higher than Region 1.
Court-certified independent contractors also command higher fees than those approved by the Judicial Council. In the Santa Barbara courts, freelancers were paid an average of approximately $300 per half-day in 2021 instead of the posted fee of $156.56 (in place from 2007 to mid 2021) or $175.00 as of July 1, 2021.
Court-certified and court-registered contract interpreters working in legal settings outside of county courthouses make, on average, between 45% to 100% more than the amounts posted on the fee schedule, depending on the geographic area (with fees increasing further north).
Pathways to employment
In its present form, the bill provides for reinventing training options that already exist and contains vague language around whether the Judicial Council is planning to identify or propose an alternative to the existing court interpreter exam.
If the bill were to pass in its present form, it would undermine our recent gains towards professionalization and destabilize the earning potential of interpreters across the state. If the courts allow the hiring of interpreters undergoing on-the-job-training before they have proven their aptitude, it may only be a matter of time before interpreters in other settings lose opportunities as well. For example, administrative and court-certified interpreters working in other venues, such as workers’ compensation, could see their opportunities to earn a fair-market wage decline as less qualified (read: cheaper) interpreters flood the market, as they have in medical settings in California.
The proposed pilot program provides for training up to ten participants in four courthouses per year, establishing a second class of interpreters who are subject to lower standards and will inevitably and eventually replace professional court-certified interpreters, both staff and freelance.
Interpreters should be concerned about legislation that proposes giving priority to untested training program participants for employment in the courts, especially since there is no mention in the bill of a required passing grade for the program or a requirement to pass the California Bilingual Interpreting Examination.
Assemblymember Fong and his colleagues in the California State Legislature would do well to advocate for higher pay and better working conditions for the 1,800 certified court interpreters across the 15 languages the state certifies, as well as the hundreds of registered interpreters who work in languages with no certification options.
Spending money on increasing current staff interpreter salaries and independent contractor fees would also do much more to attract qualified, reliable candidates, without watering down the talent pool or creating redundant training programs as proposed in this bill.
If Mr. Fong believes there is a shortage of qualified interpreters, there are several actionable alternatives he could propose:
- Increasing compensation to attract more candidates and contract interpreters to fill in the gaps.
- Offering grants to aspiring court interpreters for existing training programs. Dozens of reputable ones are currently offered, both inside California as well as nationwide.
- Making a list of these programs available on the Judicial Council website.
- Offering a state program to reimburse candidates for the cost of taking the state exam.
- Offering the oral exam more than just 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). As of this post, exam dates for 2023 have yet to even be announced.
- Reimbursing interpreters’ continuing education expenses.
Significant strides have been made in recent decades toward raising the profile of our profession. Let’s keep going and accomplish even more. This is a matter of ensuring language access for all Californians while being responsible with the public purse.
Call to action
We encourage all our members in California to contact their state legislators now to tell them why this bill will not work for you, for your colleagues, or for our judicial system.
Click here to find out who your legislators are. Then, use the templates below to write their office, call their staffers, and set up an in-person meeting to talk about your work, your challenges, and how this bill (as written) will do little to solve them. Ask that Assemblymember Fong and colleagues consult with the individual interpreters this bill affects, so that we can improve the working conditions and compensation of interpreters across California and protect limited English proficient individuals’ civil right to meaningful language access.
If you are Assemblymember Fong’s constituent (District 49, which includes South Pasadena, Monterey Park, El Monte, and Arcadia), you have an even greater opportunity to effect important change for yourself and our profession.
If you need any help, contact the ATA Advocacy Committee or any of its members for tips on telling your story and written samples you can use for inspiration.