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Why the people who serve as interpreters in Minnesota courts are not happy with those who run Minnesota courts

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Buttons and stickers on display at the recent meeting of interpreters at the Ramsey County Library in Maplewood.

On a recent evening, Rica Highers arrived a little early to set up the community room inside the Ramsey County Library in Maplewood, where a group of interpreters were scheduled to meet the state’s top court administrator, Jeff Shorba, to discuss wages for independent spoken language interpreters working in district courts throughout Minnesota.

While Highers, an organizer with the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, arranged the chairs, she kept an eye on the door, asking the incoming attendees — most of whom were Spanish, Hmong and Somali speakers — to either take buttons and stickers that read “INTERPRETERS UNITED FOR RESPECT” and “INTERPRETERS DESERVE RESPECT.”

The meeting was the latest attempt to convince officials from the Minnesota Judicial Branch, which oversees courts in Minnesota, to adjust the current payment policy, which has barely budged in two decades. While members of the group awaited the arrival of Shorba, they turned to each other in twos and threes for small talk about the weather, work and the library — as if they were at a cocktail party.

Once Shorba made his entrance, though, the mood changed. There were no greetings or smiles. Shorba sat on one side of the room, the interpreters on the other. When a small number of the interpreters got up to speak, they talked about their importance in the judicial system, to people throughout the state. But more than anything, they talked about their pay, how they were treated — and what it said about who and what the courts value in Minnesota.

The gap

Many spoken language interpreters view their service in the court system as crucial as that of the defense lawyers, prosecutors and other key players in the justice system.

Courts in Minnesota are legally mandated to provide qualified interpreters for people with limited English proficiency, the same way they’re mandated to provide interpreters of American Sign Language for individuals with hearing or speech disorders.  

To ensure access to equal justice for individuals with limited English, the judicial branch employs hundreds of professional spoken language and ASL interpreters, who not only serve defendants but also victims, witnesses, prosecutors and judges on various cases, in family, civil and criminal matters.

The problem, at least as far as the spoken language interpreters see it? There’s a huge gulf in payment between themselves and ASL interpreters. Certified spoken language interpreters get paid $52 an hour by the judicial branch. Their ASL counterparts, on the other hand, make $86 an hour.

And while $52 may seem like decent pay — the median wage in Minnesota is about $20 an hour — that number can be misleading in regards to what interpreters actually bring home. Because of the way MJB sets up schedules, said Sally Nichols, a certified Spanish interpreter who’s been working with district courts in Minnesota for the past 28 years, interpreters like her can only work four hours a day — a two-hour session in the morning and a two-hour session in the afternoon.

That means Nichols makes gross income of about $45,000 a year. And interpreters who speak ethnic languages that aren’t as common in Minnesota make less, since there are fewer opportunities to pick up work. What’s more, because interpreters are independent contractors, they don’t get paid vacation days, paid sick time, or paid holidays. “So we have to work more to make the same as other people,” Nichols said.

The gap in pay between spoken-word interpreters and ASL interpreters wasn’t always so stark. In 1997, for example, a certified spoken language interpreter was paid $50 an hour while a certified ASL interpreter was paid $55. But over the last 20 years, ASL interpreters have seen their pay rise by $31 an hour. Over that same period spoken language interpreters saw a single raise, last year, of $2 an hour.

Certified Hmong interpreter Kazoua Yang, who worked for the state for two decades and helped create the initial interpreter payment policy in 1997, says it’s not a coincidence that MJB has different payment policies for the two interpreter groups.

While Yang acknowledges that the sign language profession is more established, she believes the disparate treatment of spoken language interpreters has a lot to do with the fact that sign language interpreters and their clients are often white, native-born Americans with a long history of challenging the state when it violates the Americans with Disability Act, which protects deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“For me, as a person of color, I believe it’s about our color,” Yang said. “All of the ASL interpreters are white. Their clients are white. They can speak up; they can file a lawsuit. [But] all of our clients cannot even speak English.”       

“When I was working for the state, if we couldn’t find a sign language interpreter, their attorney would call the state and they would sue us for not having an interpreter,” said Yang. “Immigrants and refugees are very nice that they don’t speak up and they are afraid of the system because they think they don’t have rights.”

The fight for better wages

In 2010, interpreters began to talk among themselves about ways they could improve their pay. By 2015, a group of interpreters banded together to create a group called Lingua to help drive that agenda.

Since then, Lingua has held a series of meetings with MJB officials, demanding an increase in wages for spoken language interpreters. In 2016, in response to those demands, the judicial branch conducted a market study survey, comparing its pay for contract interpreters with that of other public agencies, including the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Bloomington Immigration Court and the Mayo Clinic.

MJB found that its interpreter payment was on par with most public agencies in the state. Even so, officials increased interpreter pay by $2 an hour for the spoken language interpreters in 2017, though the rate still falls well below what interpreters make in the private sector, which can be as much as $90 an hour.

Unsatisfied with increase

The meeting in Maplewood was intended to convey a simple message to MJB administrator Shorba: the $2 increase from 2017 wasn’t enough.

The interpreters emphasized the importance of their role in the justice system, and the fact that refugee communities in Minnesota are facing a shortage of interpreters because of better pay in the private sector. Speakers also pleaded with Shorba him to stand with them in advocating for better pay at the Legislature.

Then it was Shorba’s turn to talk. “The Judicial Council asked me to come to this meeting on their behalf to talk about some of the issues you’ve been raising,” he began.

He quickly made it clear that MJB was not going to consider a pay increase for interpreters after the changes that were made last year — a reference to the $2 per hour increase.  

The mention of the $2 bump sparked a vociferous response among the crowd. “$2!” the event’s organizer, Rica Highers, shouted. “I can’t buy coffee with $2. Come on!”

“It’s an increase, whether you like it or not,” Shorba replied. “We made the increase based on a market study.”

Jeff Shorba
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Jeff Shorba: “When we look at salary increases for employees, we do a market study. We don’t compare ourselves to the private sector; we compare ourselves to other public sectors.”

Highers pushed back against that argument, citing a 2017 MinnPost story in which Shorba  testified before a legislative committee on behalf of raising salaries for judges, saying that “we are not able to gain the interest of highly competent lawyers if we’re not able to keep salaries competitive.”

Highers asked why the MJB looked only at the public sector to decide spoken language interpreters’ payment, but the overall market rate when looking at salaries for judges. “What’s the difference here?” Highers asked. “Why is there a completely disparate set of rules being applied?”

“Sorry that you feel there’s a disparate set of rules,” Shorba replied. “There’s not a disparate set of rules. When we look at salary increases for employees, we do a market study. We don’t compare ourselves to the private sector; we compare ourselves to other public sectors.”

Marianne McEvoy, a certified court interpreter and member of the Lingua group, asked Shorba a question that seemed most important to many in attendance: “Will you stand with us or not?” in asking the Legislature to give interpreters another raise.

“No,” he replied. “I will not be asking the Legislature for an increase the market rates will not support.”

The meeting ended abruptly after that, even if the interpreters efforts wouldn’t. “We’re not done,” Highers told MinnPost as she prepared to leave. “We know that there are a lot of people who are up for elections right now. They’re probably looking for us to turn out to vote in these midterm elections and this might just become one of those issues that people might vote on.”  

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ian Stade on 07/20/2018 - 01:39 pm.


    Is there an option for these folks to unionize? MAPE or AFSCME or SEIU?

  2. Submitted by Vivian Rodriguez on 07/20/2018 - 06:09 pm.

    Pay rate difference among Interpreters

    My name is Vivian Rodriguez and I am an interpreter. I interpret from Spanish/English as well as ASL/English and vice versa. I can tell you that the pay rate difference between a spoken language interpreter and an ASL interpreter has nothing to do with race nor skin color. The difference in pay rates has to do more with education and skill level. In order for me to be an ASL interpreter I had to go through an Interpreter Education program. I earned an AAS in Sign Language interpreting where one learns many difference aspects of interpreting besides learning American Sign Language. One has to master simultaneous, consecutive, and voice interpreting. As well as mental processing of information received as a source language to produce in the target language. We are also trained in ethics, professional business practices, and must abide by a Code of Professional Conduct. There are other many things one has to learn in order to be a professional interpreter. Once a person has finished the interpreting education program, we have to become nationally certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). This is a two step process. One has to take the written part of the NIC/RID exam, but one must have a BA degree first (as of 2012). The second step must be completed within five years of having passed the written part. Most members of the Deaf community ask for, demand, or prefer someone who is “certfied” by the RID because they know the interpreter is well trained and qualified. If an ASL interpreter wants to interpret in courts, schools k-12, or in a mental health field there are additional certification processes for special certification in those areas. Interpreters CANNOT work in those areas without them.

    However, all I have to do to be hired as a spoken language interpreter was take a language proficiency test with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Now, I’m Puerto Rican and Spanish is my first language, English is my second, and ASL my third. I grew up in New York and I have native command of both the Spanish and English accent. One cannot detect any accent except the NY accent when I speak. I have a BA degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies. However, I earned that degree after taking the ACTFL before graduating college and I scored at the advanced high level in every category and I was hired as an interpreter. Basically what I’m saying is that all I had to do to be hired as a spoken language interpreter was take a proficiency test to show how much Spanish I know. Now, in all fairness, there are many interpreting programs out there that one can take to be a spoken language interpreter. If one wants to be a court interpreter, many states require certification in court interpreting. Obtaining a medical interpreting certificate can increase your pay rate demand. These programs are short and not as challenging as the Sign Language interpreting program nor do they teach you many things about what it takes to be an effective interpreter. I dare say this because of hundreds of reactions that I get from clients who have hired a tipical interpreter and when they hire me, they tell me about the differences in my skills versus other interpreters they have worked with. I also say this because I have researched many interpreter programs and the court interpreter certification process (which I’m going through now) and it is not as exhaustive as the Sign Language interpreting program.

    Lastly, a spoken language interpreter can interpret without being required to meet all the skills and qualifications that an ALS interpreter must meet. Again, I know MANY Spanish Interpreters with no formal training working in medical, legal, and educational fields and no one questions their skills. One can be in a court and a judge can say “does anyone speaks Spanish?”, but that cannot happen with a deaf or hard of hearing person, because one not only needs to know ASL, but they HAVE TO have the proper skills and certification in order to interpret for a deaf person.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 07/21/2018 - 06:37 am.

      Thanks for this critical information. One can but wonder why it wasn’t made part of the story in that it changes everything.

  3. Submitted by Soo Park on 07/22/2018 - 07:21 am.

    Diversity is not tokenism

    Being a bilingual is not mere happenstance; it requires a lifetime of learning and studying. Especially interpreting at court, and in a doctor’s office or deposition requires more than casual practice of one’s second language. I was born and raised in other part of the world but earned an MA in Mass Communication and a PhD in American Studies in the United States. My learning English took far more than a 4-year college education or a 2-step certification exam. One gains nothing from driving a wedge between ASL interpreters and spoken language interpreters. Disregarding spoken language interpreters as unqualified, incompetent, or lacking rigorous education in their specialty and therefore do not deserve the same level of payment as ASL is not a productive line of argument.

    That in the United States being bilingual doesn’t mean much because there is not enough emphasis on teaching and learning second languages is not the fault of spoken interpreters. That there is not a rigorous testing system to weed out the casual bilingual from the serious bilingual is not the fault of spoken interpreters. Having a medical interpreting certification has done nothing for my gigs: it brings neither more cases nor higher pay rate. Being bilingual in the United States just isn’t as valued as it is in other parts of the world. The interpreting programs currently offered in some colleges, including the University of Minnesota, does not seem to offer practical, hands-on study, precisely because some teachers themselves, I heard, are not practicing interpreters. Don’t blame interpreters for not having a proper training or continuing education when the system of competent training and certification itself are not there. A case in point: I heard that recently the state of MN temporarily halted a state certification exam for Somali because they figured out that the test graders of Somali were not properly trained or skilled enough to grade the certification exam. As a result, these supposedly nationally acknowledged as capable graders have been failing Somali language testers who otherwise could have been very competent interpreters.

    What the stat of MN is doing now is diversity tokenism. It’s not interested in encouraging well-educated bilinguals to join the interpreting workforce by offering livable wages. It’s not interested in offering any kind of continuing education programs so that the spoken interpreting service may continue to improve. The state of MN is doing a bare minimum by simply and merely providing spoken language interpreters whenever it is requested. One cannot reap when nothing has been sowed. The state of MN is speaking clearly and loudly that it is not interested in fostering true diversity and global citizenship by refusing to stand with spoken interpreters.

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