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Interpreter pay increase aims to assist in assuring court system fairness

It can be hard to navigate the state’s judicial system, but it can be even tougher for people who have limited English proficiency or struggle to otherwise communicate.

That is why judicial interpreters can play an important role in justice for all.

However, the roster of interpreters continues to dwindle. Compensation — or lack thereof — is playing a key role.

Sponsored by Rep. Kaohly Vang Her (DFL-St. Paul), HF972, as amended, would appropriate a yet-to-be-determined amount in fiscal year 2022 to increase pay for interpreters who are independent contractors. It would establish a new hourly rate of $86 for certified interpreters and $74 for uncertified interpreters.

“The objective is to go to certifieds first, but since we don’t have enough of them … we move down to the rostered ones,” Her said.

It would also appropriate a yet-to-be-determined amount to reimburse interpreters who are independent contractors for expenses, including mileage.

A fiscal note is forthcoming; nonetheless the bill was laid over Friday by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion. It has no Senate companion.

“When you don’t have a highly skilled interpreter, it is almost impossible to both do the investigation and to follow through with the court processes. The details really, really matter in the courts and on the investigative side,” said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville), the committee chair.

Added Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge): “They do a valuable service to our judicial system, not only in the courts, but also for the investigative side in law enforcement.”

According to a handout, spoken language interpreter pay has increased just 4% in 23 years. American Sign Language interpreters have seen a 54% increase in that time.

“Pay after expenses (including mileage, insurance, gas, travel time, etc.) is only $10.40 - $18.51. This is not sustainable for interpreters who struggle to fill a 20-hour workweek,” the handout states. It also notes “court scheduling and payment policies limit most interpreter sessions to a few hours per day.”

Sally Nichols is a certified Spanish interpreter who has worked as a freelancer for the state court system.

“When I first moved to Minnesota in 1999, I was making more or less what I’m making now. … As inflation goes up, but our wages don’t go up, we continuously struggle to stay in this profession which we love.”

She said 20% of eligible interpreters have left since 2019, largely due to compensation.

“We’re also seeing that we do not have new interpreters joining us in this profession because there is no incentive for them to do so,” said April Cedillo, a state-certified Spanish interpreter and owner of Link Interpret. “… We are not going to have the number of professionals to do this work if we can’t pay these professionals at a professional rate.”

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