The scene at East Boston District Court was familiar: a cluster of Spanish-speaking families seated in the back of the courtroom on a warm Tuesday morning, eyes searching for an interpreter who would never come.
One man hoped to learn if his son’s case would be called; next to him, a woman and her husband who carved hours out of their day for a pre-trial conference. After waiting nearly three hours, they were approached by Jose Antonio Vincenty, a defense attorney who spoke Spanish and offered to interpret for them before the judge.
“I shouldn’t have to be doing that, but if I don’t stay here the extra hour, they’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Vincenty said.
This makeshift solution, which Vincenty said is fairly common, is a symptom of strained interpretation services in the state’s court system. The Office of Language Access is experiencing an acute shortage of translators, which workers say has been exacerbated by an ongoing history of bad management, leaving them feeling demoralized, frustrated, and afraid.
“Their managerial style is driving people away and ruining the office... it’s like something out of the Middle Ages,” said Ilia Cornier-Rivera, 67, who provides Spanish translation on a per-diem basis for the agency and hopes to retire within the next year.
The office is led by director Sybil Martin and senior manager Narda Berrios and overseen by Court Administrator Thomas Ambrosino, appointed in December to co-lead the state’s 94 courthouses.
Martin and Berrios declined interview requests with the Globe. In a statement, Trial Court spokesperson Jennifer Donahue said “many of the issues and concerns about the [office] identified by the Globe are related to the inadequate number of full time interpreters employed by the Trial Court.”
The office has long been swamped by more demand for interpreters than it can provide; it employs 60 staff and 87 per diem interpreters, but fields more than 150,000 requests a year for interpretation. The office also coordinates with 72 interpreters from out of state for both Zoom and in-person interpretation, paying for their transportation and accommodations, and it contracts with third-party online interpreters who may not be screened or certified in Massachusetts.
Interpreters have filed numerous complaints since the start of this year, ranging from concerns about scheduling to allegations of retaliation and discrimination by management, according to Danny Soto, an investigations manager with the trial court’s Office of Workplace Rights and Compliance.
In interviews with the Globe, more than two dozen current and former workers described extreme dysfunction and mismanagement in their office, with concerns stretching back over five years, when the office’s previous director was fired after an independent audit found “near-universal dissatisfaction with her interpersonal and management skills.”
Multiple interpreters said the current leaders, Berrios and Martin, would accuse them of skipping shifts or being late to work. Emails obtained by the Globe detail how one staff interpreter moved to contact a judge to advocate on her behalf after managers refused to believe she had arrived on time for her shift.
Two former schedulers also told the Globe that Berrios repeatedly ordered them to punish per diem interpreters who had provoked her ire by removing them from the schedule. Former scheduler Gisele Souza recalled one instance when an interpreter called Berrios to say her car had broken down en route to Lowell District Court.
“[Berrios] calls me and says … ‘I know she’s lying. Get her off the schedule for a week,’” Souza said.
When Souza responded that Lowell would be without an interpreter as a result, she said Berrios told her to get an interpreter on Zoom instead.
“There’s things that can’t be done via Zoom,” Souza said. “You’re hurting the court system, you’re hurting these people that are entitled to justice.”
Another staff interpreter, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation, said management ordered her to interpret at a courthouse in person while she was still positive for COVID-19.
“I had to go,” the woman said. “I was too afraid of what might happen if I disobeyed.”
Donahue declined to comment on individual complaints, but said that “to the best of our knowledge, none of these concerns were ever reported to [the Office of Workers Rights and Compliance].” Donahue also noted the agency has hired a chief access, diversity and fairness officer, who begins Aug. 14 and “will undertake a review of the policies and practices of OLA and the other departments that they oversee.”
The ramifications of these issues emerge in courthouses across the state, where hundreds of people with limited English skills struggle to access appropriate services. Stakes are often fairly low in administrative matters, attorneys say, but when interpreters aren’t available for more serious proceedings, a person’s constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial could be jeopardized.
“Holding someone another day or two [in jail] because an interpreter is not available isn’t really a legally acceptable thing, but sometimes it happens,” said Zachary Cloud, a defense attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
Similar problems arise when lawyers are forced to rely on third-party virtual services, which attorneys say are often poor quality and difficult to understand. Sometimes, Cloud said, online interpreters tell him they are “not qualified to interpret legal terms” or that certain concepts are beyond their ability to translate.
The consequences can be especially dire for immigrants entangled in the legal system, said defense attorney Edward Swan. Every time a court case is continued because of missing or inadequate interpretation, he said, it can result in uncertainty about housing, employment, or legal status.
“All those extra court dates are just an extra liability hanging around their neck all that time,” he said.
In an interview, Ambrosino said he has “not at this point” heard any concerns severe enough to warrant a change in management. He declined to say whether any specifically involved verbal abuse or mismanagement, but said he advises staff interpreters who have a complaint to bring the matter to their union.
Ambrosino also acknowledged he hopes to boost staff numbers and gradually phase out per diems, noting there is an ongoing effort to “reduce their volume of work.” But several per diem interpreters told the Globe that because of working conditions, they are reluctant to apply to staff positions.
“In the past, people who retired would go back and do per-diem work. I don’t think there’s any retiree doing that now,” said Arlene Kelly, 71, a former staff interpreter who said she retired in 2021 when she couldn’t take the office’s “micro-managing” any longer.
“They have a style of not only divide and conquer, but also demean and insult,” she added.
Meanwhile, employees say managers punish staff by reassigning them to courts far from where they live, which stalls court proceedings and can sometimes mean hundreds of dollars a week in gas reimbursements paid by taxpayers. Multiple employees told the Globe they have frequently crossed paths on the highway with other interpreters who speak the same language, rather than being assigned to the courthouse closest to their home.
Interpreters say they are motivated by the people they serve, often immigrants in vulnerable positions like they once were. But they find themselves constantly struggling to do the job well under managers who they say have driven some to early retirement and caused others to develop health issues.
“I couldn’t sleep at night, I couldn’t concentrate at work, I started really losing it,” said Christopher Guidera, 60, whose 20-year career ended in June following a lengthy medical leave for mental health issues.
In April, Guidera was paid $100,000 by the state to settle a workers compensation case for post-traumatic stress disorder he reported developing on the job, according to documents obtained by the Globe.
“This is a really honorable government job that gives us a lot of pride,” he said. “But we’re all being treated terribly now, and there’s no pride in that.”