NY court interpreters propose class action against state

A group of courtroom interpreters has proposed a class action suit against the New York State Unified Court System for discriminatory pay practices targeting immigrant groups.

In a complaint issued May 25, 28 court interpreters working in the state of New York alleged that pay rates for courtroom interpreters are not proportionate to the amount of education and work required from them. The complaint notes that courtroom interpreters in the state are not only paid significantly less than their counterparts in the federal court system, but are also paid less than other courtroom personnel, particularly court reporters. 

Because a much larger portion of court interpreters are foreign-born than other courtroom employees, the complaint alleges that the disparity in pay rates discriminates on the basis of nationality.

“Though highly skilled, those interpreters are paid significantly less than all other courtroom personnel employed in New York City courts, because many of them are foreign-born, are of foreign ancestry and because their skills are used to provide court access to non-English speaking, limited-English speaking or persons with hearing disabilities,” the complaint alleges.

In addition to the disparities between interpreters at the state and federal level, the interpreters note that the pass rates for civil service exams for interpreters are particularly low compared ot other legal professionals. Court reporters, for example, have a 55% pass rate for their civil service exam. Moreover, 68% of candidates passed the New York State Bar Exam in 2017, according to the complaint.

Candidates to become court interpreters, on the other hand, have a mere 10% pass rate for their civil service exam. Since court interpreting was first professionalized as a formal career path in the mid-20th Century, states have adopted very rigorous screening processes. In theory, court interpreters only need a high school degree or equivalent (according to the job description for New York state court interpreters), but this is often not the case. 

In order to pass the civil service exams and succeed as interpreters, candidates need cognitive and linguistic abilities typically developed in higher education. Despite this rigor, interpreters in New York are generally paid less than the state’s court reporters, who perform a similar task without the added challenge of working in two languages. 

According to the complaint, the minimum salary for a court reporter in New York is just about $4,000 less than the maximum salary for a court interpreter, at $85,886. The maximum salary for a court reporter, on the other hand, is $131,923. A disproportionate number of interpreters were born and/ or raised abroad compared to court reporters — the interpreters believe this disparity is a result of discriminatory practices in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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