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Courtroom interpreters can become official trial court employees and form unions now that Gov. Gray Davis has signed a law that allows them to drop their status as independent contractors. SB 371, written by Montebello Democrat Sen. Martha Escutia, gives interpreters the ability to become like other court employees, a major shift in the profession. Davis approved the bill Sunday during a bout of last-minute bill signing. Members of two vocal groups, the California Federation of Interpreters and Bay Area Court Interpreters, have been working on the change for about seven years and lobbied hard in favor of the new law, said Mary Lou Aranguren, legislative director for both organizations. The groups say that even though the change will cost the state money, it will cure the statewide shortage of interpreters and help those in the profession make a better living. Right now, all but about 25 of the estimated 1,300 certified and registered interpreters in California are independent contractors. That means they receive no benefits, pay their own employment taxes and cannot unionize. They get paid $265 for a full day’s work and $147 for a half-day. But not all interpreters supported the bill. The California Court Interpreters Association, which claims about 600 certified interpreters among its 800 members, said many of its members are upset about losing the freedom of being self-employed. The group fought the measure in the Legislature and several weeks ago organized a picket in Sacramento urging Davis to veto. Although the new law will cost the state more money in the immediate future, eventually the measure will help keep the cost of courtroom interpretation low, Aranguren said. The courts spent $61 million on interpreters in fiscal year 2001-02, with $55.5 million going toward independent contractor fees, $4.6 million toward the minority of interpreters already employed by the courts and $1 million toward training and travel. The bill will add in $5 million to establish offices and then $3 million each year to manage the interpreters, said Ronald Overholt, chief deputy administrative director of the courts. “We believe we will see efficiencies by having interpreters as employees,” Overholt said. “It’s less costly than continuing on [the current] road.” The state is facing a serious shortage in qualified interpreters and is paying more for them, Aranguren said. Even though the current pay scale is set by the Judicial Council, sometimes courts have to pay much more than the daily rate to secure interpreters for long trials in languages that are less popular in the profession, such as Cantonese, she said. Also, people are leaving the courts for higher-paying private sector work, Aranguren said. Aranguren has interpreted Spanish in Alameda, San Francisco and other Bay Area counties for 12 years. But CCIA Vice President Arturo C�sarez said if members of the California Federation of Interpreters and Bay Area Court Interpreters understood what happened while the law was hashed out in Sacramento, they probably would have retracted their support. Rather than helping the interpreter shortage, the new law will cause people to leave the profession and go get work elsewhere so they can continue to be their own bosses, C�sarez said. He also said he thinks that the change will take money from interpreters’ pockets because the state will want to use interpreters’ wages to cover benefits. And, if the state budget continues to be in the hole, as it is this year, counties might not even want to come to bargaining tables to negotiate hiring interpreters, C�sarez said. C�sarez has claimed that Sen. Escutia tried to shut down debate on the bill and that the competing groups haven’t explained the bill’s amendments to their members. “They are turning the whole profession upside down,” said C�sarez, who interprets Spanish in Sacramento and Yolo counties and also works as a firefighter in Sacramento. After a two-year transition period, the law allows interpreters to be: � Full-time or part-time court employees, with the ability to form unions and negotiate job conditions. � Pro tem court employees, with more flexible work assignments than full- or part-timers. � Independent contractors, who would be limited to only working 100 days in any one county. However, independents could work in several counties. There are several “opt-out” provisions in the bill that allow certain interpreters to retain the status they have now. Most significantly, those who are older or have worked for the courts for many years are exempt from the new law, if they want to be. Aranguren said she doesn’t understand C�sarez’s gloom. The new law does not require interpreters to become union members, and it still allows people to be self-employed, provided they follow certain conditions, she said. “I think change is scary to people, and there’s a lot of attachment to this notion of independence,” she said. “We think, ultimately, we will be making a better living.”

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