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Northern California’s unionized court interpreters can translate the word “strike” from a dozen different languages, but for now they aren’t mentioning it in contract talks. Efforts to negotiate the first-ever union contract between California courts and their courtroom interpreters have stalled despite weeks of talks, two short-term walkouts and noisy protests during the summer. The unionizing of court interpreters has been growing slowly around the country, with New York, New Jersey and Chicago’s Cook County courts already organized. California’s 1,200 certified court interpreters, who provide spoken language interpretation of court proceedings, speak for one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse populations, with 26% of the state’s 34 million people foreign born. A report issued on Sept. 8 by the state’s Commission on Access to Justice painted a troubling picture of the availability of interpreters in the state. The number of qualified interpreters has declined by one-quarter overall in the last decade, while the number of non-English speaking immigrants has grown. The state has also lost one-third of certified Spanish-speaking interpreters. Among its recommendations are improved training to raise the 15% pass rate for interpreters seeking state certification. More than 220 languages are spoken in the state, with interpreters for Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Mandarin, Korean and Arabic, commonly needed, according to the commission’s report. A reclassification California approved legislation in 2002 reclassifying court interpreters from independent contractors to state employees, but first they had to pass tough certification tests and negotiate contracts. While two regions in Southern California signed agreements, the two regions in Northern California and the Central Valley have not. A mediator began work during August with both sides in the north, but by Sept. 6 no new date for talks has been set for this month, said Mary Lou Aranguren, chief negotiator for the interpreters. Last year California spent $65 million hiring independent interpreters statewide. Interpreters can earn up to $68,000 a year. Two main sticking points have emerged in the talks, according to Aranguren. One is seniority for assignments to widely scattered courts and the other is the use of two-member teams for interpreting, which allows translators to trade off regularly during lengthy trial days. Roberta Stibbard, who heads the management side in the San Francisco Bay Area, said that team interpreting requires courts to have two interpreters instead of one. “It doubles the cost. This is all about money,” she said. Aranguren disagreed. “That’s an exaggeration.” She said courts have the ability to cover with existing staffing. Settlement of cases and other options can reduce costs. Federal courts routinely use team interpreting, she said.

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