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Sonoma County court interpreters join regional walkout for better pay, conditions

The four full-time Spanish language interpreters at the Sonoma County courthouse said they hoped the show of unity would force the state to meet their demands for higher wages, hazard pay and others benefits.|

Spanish language interpreters at the Sonoma County courthouse joined a regionwide walkout Friday over wages and working conditions, leaving courtrooms without trained professionals to translate for defendants, victims and witnesses who do not speak English.

While the local steward for the California Federation of Interpreters told The Press Democrat that the action was “not a full strike,” she did not share when interpreters would return to the courthouse to provide their services.

“Basically, we’re just really unhappy that the courts are unwilling to sit down and present a meaningful counteroffer” to the union’s contract proposals, steward Christina Guerrero Harmon said.

Interpreters are asking, she said, for wages that reflect "the cost of living, inflation rates and, also, all the work we did during the pandemic as front-line workers.“

In an email, a spokesman for the state court system’s Bay Area division said a meeting was set for next Wednesday after the union requested to return to the bargaining table.

The two sides have been negotiating a new contract for at least a year.

California Federation of Interpreters Vice President Janet Hudec said that the offer that court system representatives has no raises beyond a one-time, $1,000 bonus.

“We have been trying to convince them that there’s still a lot to talk about,” Hudec said, and that’s why courthouse interpreters across Sonoma County and others in the North Bay have walked out.

“This is really sort of our last resort,” Guerrero Harmon said.

Ken Garcia, a San Francisco-based spokesperson for the state court system, said court officials were “making arrangements for court hearings and trials to proceed despite the strike.”

The interpreters’ absence was felt in the Hall of Justice in Santa Rosa Friday morning, according to local defense attorney and representative of the Sonoma County Bar Association Walt Rubenstein.

“There was a matter that could have had some progress on a substantive basis, but the person in custody is a Spanish speaker, and Judge (Mark) Urioste did not feel comfortable moving forward,” Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein said he supports the walkout. His wife is a former court interpreter, so he knows “how incredibly important" their service is and how ”it can be critical to resolving cases,“ he said.

The walkout is the latest demonstration for labor rights in the area, joining teachers in Cotati-Rohnert Park striking for higher pay this week.

The court interpreters have called for court approval of video and remote interpretation, retroactive hazard pay for their in-person work during the height of the pandemic, cost of living adjustments and wage increases.

Regional court interpreters have not received a raise since 2017, according to the federation’s press release. A job listing that expired in February 2020 shows that full-time court interpreters make between $76,000 and $92,000.

Garcia, the court spokesman, said interpreters in the Bay Area “are the highest paid interpreters employed by the Superior Courts in California.”

However, federation vice president Hudec countered that in the Bay Area and adjacent counties, “The cost of living is a lot higher.”

“It’s kind of insulting. They know that, to become an interpreter, you have to have a very particular skill set, vast knowledge and sophisticated vocabulary,” Hudec said. “Interpreters deserve to be paid like the professionals we are.”

Friday afternoon, Guerrero Harmon and the three other full-time Sonoma County interpreters — Maria Galvez, Elva Murillo-Nunez and Monica Aparicio — were joined outside the civil and family law court building by the only unionized interpreter working at the Napa County Superior Court, Carmen Marroquin.

They said what they earn as court interpreters barely allows them to get by.

“I, for one, have two jobs,” said Galvez. “I work during the week in the Sonoma County courthouse, and then, during the weekends, I do something else. And a lot of people are in the same position because it’s just not enough.”

Guerrero Harmon added, “For instance, my family, we don’t eat out any more because we cant afford it.”

The women — who have passed a certification test that has a lower pass rate than the state Bar Exam for attorneys — explained why their jobs are important, and difficult.

Court language interpretation, a constitutional right, is crucial to helping people “understand what the judge is saying to them or be able to communicate with their attorneys as well,” said Murillo-Nunez.

Interpreters help “level the playing field between the English speakers and the non-English speakers,” Aparicio added. “When your freedom is on the line, you don’t want to half-understand what’s going on.”

Multiple interpreters have been present daily at the ongoing trial of two Sonoma County men accused of abducting a woman waiting for a rideshare in San Francisco, beating her as they drove her to the town of Sonoma and raping her once their arrive. Both defendants don’t understand English, and interpreters must translate for them the fast-paced and technical testimony on the fly.

To Galvez, this trial shows what’s at stake. “The truth is,” she said, “we have other people’s lives in our hands.”

“We’re just asking what’s fair, and they just need to come to the table and meet us there,” Marroquin said. “We’re forced to do this. We don’t want to, but if it’s the only way to get their attention — hey, here we are.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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