Judicial Council formed the Interpreter Act Working Group

 

n August of this year, in line with Recommendation 74 of the Language Access Plan, the Judicial Council formed the Interpreter Act Working Group; it was composed of court CEO’s, Judicial Council administrators and staff from the Court Interpreter Program, as well as both independent and union member employee interpreters. The Working Group was charged with reviewing and offering perspective on the present state of the Trial Court Interpreter Employment and Labor Relations Act, now incorporated into the California Government Code under Title 8, Chapter 7.5, Sections 71800 – 71829. The specific focus in the process was the four Region bargaining structure[1], the 100- & 45-Day Rule[2], and the Cross-assignment system[3]. The Working Group’s co-chairs, Judge Austin, formerly the chair of the Court Interpreter Advisory Group, and Kim Turner, Mendocino Superior Court CEO, explained that these specific topics had come to be on the group’s agenda because of commentary and inquiries from “shareholders” to language access in the courts. 

It should be noted that the Interpreter Act Working Group basically was a gathering for brainstorming ideas and perceptions about how these points in the interpreter law were functioning; the group was to determine whether these points in the law addressed the issue of language well, poorly, or so badly there must be a change, and whether that change requires a slight amendment to the law, or completely changing how the focus subject is handled within language access law. The group had the ability to make recommendations, but because of disparity in certain points of view and opinions, no recommendation was offered; instead the group compiled a summation of the variation, conflict, and agreement among the participant’s views as they relate to each one of the topics covered.

During the initial meeting of the Interpreter Act Working Group during the summer of 2017 there was commentary and questions raised concerning the lack of union member employee interpreters at the discussion. At the strong behest of a coalition of stakeholders, a total of five interpreters came to participate – four from CFI Local 39000, and one from Interpreter Guild of America, a unit in Local 39521.[4]There was value to the court interpreter union’s involvement, and value in our knowledge-base. This could be a step toward a more positive relationship between the Judicial Council and union member interpreters, the mainstays of providing language access in the courts. The feel during meetings[5]was welcoming, and non-interpreter participants were genuinely interested in the interpreter perspective; all interpreters who participated felt that we were accepted as equals at the roundtable of expertise. However, we had no illusions; we well knew that there would be disagreement, if not conflict on some of the issues, and the possibility that there would not be room for compromise on some of the discussion topics.

Both union member employee interpreter (CFI Local 39000) and independent contractor (Interpreter Guild of America) collaborated, not only during the meetings, but in preparation video chats before the scheduled phone calls. The result is aligning our combined perspective on the working group’s focus points. 

100- & 45-Day Rule

The attending court CEO’s and Language Access Services offices around the states presented the complaint that there are not enough certified/registered interpreters to service the needs of the courts; additionally, rural courts are found to have an even more dire need. The argument was that revoking the 100-day rule would remove the restraint against using independent contractors past the hundredth day, thereby creating a much larger pool to service the courts’ language needs. 

The interpreter response was that because of marginal requirements to offer employment after the 45thday, there could be something that would truly increase interpreter resources, such as offering a full-time position after a longer period of providing services as an independent contractor. 

Cross-assignment System

The consensus within the Working Group is that the cross-assignment system is working well in some jurisdictions/regions and is inadequately meeting the language access needs in others. The large urban courts with more interpreter resources become the provider courts to those with fewer interpreters on the rosters, or varied language groups to choose from. There is a reticence on the part of resource-flush courts to share their interpreter pool, as presently it is difficult to know what their needs are far enough in advance to confidently share. Also problematic in cross-assigning is that the administrative procedures are cumbersome; centralizing the coordination toward state-wide collaboration could improve efficiencies; there was agreement that fixing this could go a long way toward better interpreter resource sharing. 

In comparison with other jurisdictions, the Sacramento Court has utilized the cross-assignment system more effectively; while other jurisdictions are only willing to cross-assign intermittent/part-time interpreters, if a full-time Sacramento interpreter is not needed for that day, the court will authorize him/her for cross-assignment. The interpreters in the group presented the following suggestions:

  • In the cross-assignment system enable earlier authorization of release from the home court instead of the day before; anywhere from 2 to 5 days prior was held out as an example.
  • All courts be willing to cross-assign any category of interpreter, whether full-time, part-time, or intermittent.
  • In line with the Interpreter Act, courts (particularly provider courts) create full-time positions with the requisite that if not used at the home court, the interpreter would be cross-assigned. Provider courts should be given incentives to create these positions, as well as offer incentives to interpreters recruited into these positions.
  • Consider making interpreters State employees, thereby allowing for sharing resources statewide, with centralized coordination.

Regional Bargaining vs. Statewide General Contract

The impetus for initiating this series of meetings was to address the regional bargaining structure; this was the issue on which the group spent the lion’s share of time. Regional bargaining is complicated for the Union in that, although there was some uniformity throughout the different contracts, there was enough disparity to cause most interpreters to gravitate toward regions with more favorable conditions, resulting in shortages in other areas of the state. All agreed that this structure is costly for all participants, rehashing the same issues with varying results for both courts and interpreters.

Although most of the participants expressed that a general state-wide contract would be preferable to the present system, the court representatives from Los Angeles and San Diego stated that they would rather be separated from any statewide structure, and bargain directly with the interpreters locally, unencumbered by other jurisdictions. Most shocking was San Diego’s suggestion that the interpreters simply be placed into the existing unions (SEIU, AFSCME) to simplify negotiations; the Union reminded the San Diego representative that union affiliation is determined by the interpreters, not local court administration. The interpreters present made it clear that CFI Local 39000 TNG-CWA is the representative of all employee interpreters in California, whether that structure be regional, or statewide.[6]Searching for a compromise, the staff leading the discussion suggested a “hybrid,” allowing the larger courts to opt-out and negotiate separate from other “regions” composed of the smaller jurisdictions. The interpreters clearly rejected the concept, mostly because in practice there is no change from the regional structure, just different names, and possibly even more groups with whom to carry out bargaining. The hybrid version is not a solution for anyone, save Los Angeles and San Diego.

Although the idea of a statewide bargaining for a general contract is advantageous to interpreters (and court administration) in many ways, there is a pantheon of kinks to be worked out:

  • There is a high level of investment in local pensions plans; it is not clear if one could keep their present plan and benefits, or would one have to transfer into a State of California plan. The consensus is that a transition period would be needed to address this issue; there was a positive view for allowing present interpreters decide which benefit set is preferred. 
  • It is unclear how to handle issues of seniority and standardizing pay scales; some jurisdictions have steps, while others do not. 
  • As part of going to a statewide structure for bargaining, if interpreters are then made state employees, one issue is whether they will be required to relocate to address needs, similar to what is standard for other employees in the judicial system, such as judges.
  • There are any number of complexities in consolidating the present four contracts into one statewide general contract. One consideration is to have a general contract that addresses the basic labor issues – salary, seniority, etc. – and then handle issues unique and specific to each jurisdiction via side letters. When pressed on that detail, the jurisdictions present did not identify the “unique/specific issues.” The result of a hybrid system could be an even larger number of sessions of meet & confer/negotiating.

 Some of the positive results of a statewide contract could lead to:

  • A consistent base pay for interpreters, regardless of where located throughout the state. Interpreters who were reluctant to relocate because of impact to pay and/or benefits would not be constrained by these sorts of factors.
  • More flexibility to relocate throughout the state.
  • Consistency and uniformity in benefits and pensions, regardless of where located throughout the state.
  • The “middle man” would be eliminated in interpreter budget considerations during the bargaining process; the state sets the budget and would be the entity with whom we directly negotiate, without the need to have the different judicial court entities involved (and possibly being obstructionist).
  • All parties involved in the negotiating process would save money with a statewide approach.
  • One singular advantage for the Union is that the entire local would be involved in bargaining; there is strength in numbers, and our impact on bargaining would be enhanced by focusing statewide, martialing our membership statewide, and getting results that are statewide. In a nutshell, more leverage.

In conclusion, what are we, both as court interpreters and union members, to understand from all this? Firstly, this is only a beginning that is basically a brainstorming of ideas and opinions; this Interpreter Act Working Group has compiled information to be presented to the Judicial Council, without any specific recommendations, as the group could not come to consensus as to endorsements for any course of action. We should understand that there are some notable differences of perspectives between courts and court interpreters regarding the Working Group’s subject matter, likewise, there are similar gaps in the viewpoints between the varying jurisdictions.

Union member representatives are collaborating with other sectors of certified interpreters to represent our members’ labor and professional interests at the Judicial Council. Moreover, the definitive decision as to how courts function is decided by elected representatives in the legislature, not the Judicial Council. We will have to be vigilant as to where the Judicial Council goes with this information; having a good legislative agenda and coordinated, focused lobbying efforts in the coming years will be key toward guiding Judicial Council policies and musings in a direction that brings meaningful language access to the courts, as well as protect our labor rights and professional tenets.

 In solidarity,

Janet Hudec
Tyler Nguyen
Pedro Ramírez Navas
Angie Birchfield
Michael Ferreira 

 

IAWG summary of work memo.pdf

IAWG_Roster_2018.pdf


[1]California Government Code under Title 8, Chapter 7.5, 71807

[2]California Government Code under Title 8, Chapter 7.5, 71802(c)(2)

[3]California Government Code under Title 8, Chapter 7.5, 71810

[4]A complete list of all participants is attached.

[5]Except for a one-day in person meeting at the Judicial Council offices, all others were telephonic during the lunch hour.

[6]By law the counties of Solano and Ventura are excluded; this was a compromise, as employee interpreters there were already represented by other unions.