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Bills from Mike Fong and Blanca Pacheco will undermine freelance interpreters

More than 40 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home. Overcoming language barriers in healthcare, commerce, and government, including the court system, is an engine of our state economy and defining point of civic progress over the past 60 years.

It’s also a point of pride for thousands of highly trained interpreters and translators, more than 75 percent of whom are freelancers, who do the expert work to bridge communication gaps. Yet that doesn’t stop a small union claiming to represent full-time interpreters from threatening our state’s progress by putting its own self-interest ahead of Californians’ and putting colleagues out of business.

This year they aim to pass a pair of laws, one to give preferential treatment to union trainees in the court system and a second to restrict the ability of independent contractors to deliver services. Both passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee at a hearing on Thursday, May 18.

Together, these two bills, Assembly Bill 432 by Asm. Mike Fong and Assembly Bill 1032 by Asm. Blanca Pacheco, will decimate the ability of professionals with hard-earned state credentials and even certifications to work in California. Both are sponsored by Democrats from the L.A. area—Fong from Monterey Park and Pacheco from Downey—who covet the endorsement and campaign dollars of this offshoot’s parent union, the Communications Workers of America.

Each of the two bills tries to change state code so as to sideline freelance interpreters from being hired by the courts.

Why does this misuse of the law matter to ordinary people? Because skill, availability, and accuracy matter. And because taxpayers are left holding the bag for errors of meaning or understanding that occur during depositions, pleadings, trials, or appeals. Re-trials can cost millions.

With languages other than Spanish, for which it is cost-prohibitive for courts to retain a full-time interpreter, a well-trained freelancer must fill the need to interpret. To block such mutually beneficial freelance arrangements could prove detrimental to timeliness and quality. It would also impose exorbitant costs on the courts and the public.

Courts set the bar not only for justice in our state, but also for compensation and working conditions for skilled linguists. Depriving freelance interpreters who derive an increment of their pay from work in courts could force them out of business entirely.

That is not conjecture. It happened in 2019 after a union-backed law, AB 5, failed to grant an exemption to freelance interpreters and translators in the state as it did for other highly skilled professionals who traditionally work independently, such as attorneys or physicians.

Fixing that failure took an additional year and a statewide campaign uniting Democrats, Republicans, and independents to force the author of that bill and the follow-up measure to stop screwing around with lawmaking power and respect common sense. More than three out of four professional interpreters and translators in the state are freelancers. They deserve, as do the clients and community members who depend on them, the capacity to practice in California.

In a maneuver that has become sadly familiar in Sacramento, this union has resorted to peddling falsehoods to sway lawmakers. In March, the union sought to deny it was sponsoring the two measures, only to own up later after legislative documents showed their involvement. In May, when concerned freelance interpreters met with a legislative author of one of the bills, a lobbyist for the union rewrote history to say they had OK’d its terms.

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This dishonesty repeats a tactic of former Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who now heads the state labor federation. In 2020, while still in the legislature, she attempted to block an exemption for professional interpreters. She cited data from the Employment Development Department to allege that interpreters were misclassified. But her data was fudged and her claim exposed as baseless. Soon her saber-rattling against freelance interpreters ended.

Lawmaking is supposed to be an area where fact, not fabrication, holds sway and evenhandedness, not hypocrisy, prevails. When unions who say they want to stand up for women or immigrants or skilled workers misuse their influence to hurt the capacity of highly trained professionals—many of whom are women and immigrant small business owners like me—that is shameful.

All Californians have a stake in saying no to bills like AB 432 and AB 1032 that set back our progress on language access and put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

Lorena Ortiz Schneider is the founder and president of the Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California (CoPTIC). An immigrant and small business owner, she led efforts in 2020 to safeguard the capacity of professional linguists who are independent contractors to continue to work in the state.

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