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The rest of the story: State court administrator responds regarding interpreters’ pay concerns

MinnPost recently published an article titled, “Why the people who serve as interpreters in Minnesota courts are not happy with those who run Minnesota courts.”  I write to tell your readers the rest of the story.

Jeff Shorba

The Minnesota Judicial Branch provides interpretive services to all court users who do not speak English, and our goal is to ensure access to high-quality interpretive services. The Judicial Branch has a handful of full-time employees who provide these services. In addition, we contract with individuals, who meet state and national standards, to provide interpretive services in our courts.  

The MinnPost article discussed concerns from individuals who contract with the Judicial Branch to provide the interpreter services. Lingua represents them. In 2016, the Judicial Branch and Lingua began to discuss rate increases and potential policy changes for contract interpreters. We formed a working group to give a standing forum for interpreters to raise concerns. As a result of these discussions, the Judicial Branch has implemented changes that benefit contract court interpreters.  

Like other Minnesota public entities, we carefully research the competitiveness of contracts with all outside vendors, and so when Lingua raised concerns over interpreter rates, the Branch conducted a market study to determine whether we needed to make adjustments in our hourly rates paid to contract interpreters. 

Based on that study, the Branch went to the Legislature and requested funding to provide a 4 percent rate increase for spoken language legal contract interpreters. The Legislature and the governor agreed and we were successful in being able to provide this increase. This increase brought up the Judicial Branch rates so that our rates are now consistent with rates other public entities that utilize contract interpreter services pay. Another market study that we completed just this year confirms that our rates are consistent with the market average of other Minnesota public entities, such as Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, Ramsey County, the Department of Health and Human Services, and others.    

Now, Lingua demands an additional 44 percent increase, which would raise spoken language contract interpreter rates from $52 per hour to $75 per hour. This large increase is out of line with the findings of the two market studies the Judicial Branch conducted over the last three years. As a result, the Judicial Branch has decided not to seek new funds to pay for this significant increase.

The MinnPost article also reported that spoken language contract interpreters receive a rate of compensation that is lower than that provided to sign language contract interpreters.  The difference between these two market rates is not unexpected or unusual. In general, serving as a sign language interpreter requires significantly more education and demonstrated proficiency, and, as such, the state and national market pays significantly higher rates for those services. In fact, among the 34 state court systems from which we gathered data, 22 (66 percent) pay a higher hourly rate for sign language interpreter services than for spoken language interpreter services. 

In addition to the rate increases, the Judicial Branch has made recent policy changes to address concerns contract interpreters have raised. For example, we now provide reimbursement to contract interpreters for parking at courthouses that do not have free parking.

The Judicial Branch values the work of spoken language contract court interpreters and the role they play in ensuring access to justice. While our most recent meeting with Lingua did not end in agreement, we remain committed to an open dialogue with all contractors and will continue to work collaboratively wherever possible.

And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, “you know the rest of the story.” 

Jeff Shorba is the Minnesota Judicial Branch state court administrator.

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