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With no pay raise in 17 years, state’s court interpreters threaten a walkout

Per Diem court interpreters haven't had a pay raise since 2006 and are planning a walkout beginning Monday. Left to right in the back row are Patricia Luzio, Genevieve Howe, and Mercy T. Cevallos. Middle row, left to right, are Gema Schaff, Anahit Flanagan, and Montserrat Zuckerman. In front, foreground, is Maiyam Baron.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Many of the state’s court interpreters who provide per diem translation services across Massachusetts plan to stage a weeklong walkout beginning Monday to protest a lack of pay raises since 2006, which could lead to a disruption of court hearings requiring their services.

“The point is to call attention to the disgrace that we’ve had no pay adjustment for 17 years, and that we need travel time pay,” said Genevieve Howe, 65, of Dorchester, a certified Spanish interpreter who spearheaded the protest. “We’re tired of waiting. We’re not willing to continue working for rates established back in 2006. We offer a high level of skill to the courts every day, and we need to be compensated like the professionals we are. Our patience has been exhausted.”

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An estimated 35 of the state’s 92 per diem interpreters plan on participating, Howe said.

Per diem interpreters are hired and paid on a daily basis and do not receive benefits. Separately, the Massachusetts Trial Court Office of Language Access employs 65 staff interpreters who do receive benefits; they are not part of the planned walkout.

Per diem interpreters are paid $200 for a half day, and $300 for a full-day. Howe said 2023 per diem rates for certified interpreters should be more in the order of $500 or $530 for a full day.

That would be more in line with the rate for federally certified court reporters who saw their rates go up on Jan. 1 from $418 to $566 for a full day and $226 to $320 for a half day.

The Massachusetts Association of Court Interpreters filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court over contract violations and pay rates in 2015, but that case has languished in the courts, with still no increase being paid out.

“We’ve been asking the Trial Court for many years to update our compensation rates, to no avail,” Howe said. “We’ve just never had any response or movement, and we’ve just had enough.”

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Court officials are aware of the planned walkout and are making arrangements for substitution coverage, if needed, said Trial Court spokeswoman Jennifer Donahue. She said the court plans to announce a new rate structure in the next month, based on the credential status of each interpreter, and it would apply retroactively to Jan. 1.

“Court interpreters are critical partners in ensuring access to justice, and the Trial Court values their service,” Donahue said in an e-mail.

She added, “In addition to addressing the per diem rate, the Trial Court has responded to other concerns raised, resulting in previous increases for mileage and parking reimbursement.”

Felix Margolin, 62, a certified Russian and Ukrainian interpreter who lives in Northampton, said he’ll participate in next week’s walkout because he can’t make ends meet on his per diem court pay.

“It makes less and less sense to rely on this,” said Margolin, who has been working as an interpreter since 2000. “I don’t have health insurance, no pension plan, no vacation, nothing.”

To supplement his income, Margolin teaches piano in the afternoons at Amherst and Smith colleges.

“You have to be healthy and willing to go somewhere any minute,” Margolin said. “The biggest challenge is you don’t ever know how much money you will make in a given week, but taxes stay the same, the mortgage stays the same.”

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Maiyim Baron, 72, of Brookline, a Japanese interpreter since 1990, said she had to become “a master at simple living” in order to survive on her per diem income. Lately, she does most of her court interpreting via Zoom and will also participate in the walkout.

“This is a very difficult and demanding job,” she said. “It takes a really high level of expertise to do it. It’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and we get very little support from the court administration.”

Mercy Cevallos, 77, of Newton, a certified Spanish interpreter since 2019, said she wanted to take part in the walkout — she just can’t afford to. So she created a petition and addressed it to Governor Maura Healey. She also petitioned state legislators.

Entitled “Raise Our Per Diem Salaries; Let Us Meet Increases in Living Costs,” the petition says per diem interpreters “are writing to petition an increase of the judicial budget, which would allow us to be fairly compensated for our work, so that we can afford the increases in living costs.”

“I’ve always had a high degree of a sense of justice, and I think we, too, deserve justice,” Cevallos said. “There’s no reason for us to be on edge financially. We’re dedicated. We work hard every single day.”


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her @talanez.