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Bilingual Officers' Victory,
a Wake Up Call for the County

An Oct.12, 2004 labor victory for Sonoma County bilingual probation officers frees the officers from 'translating servitude', and delivers an abrupt, county-wide wake up call to all public officials.

For decades, county officials have shut their eyes to the county's growing Latino population and covered their ears to pleas for help from their own bilingual personnel. The Oct.12 legal victory affirms the officers' right to opt out of bilingual pay premium, and to stop translating on demand. The victory is certain to send shock waves through other public agencies where discontent among bilingual personnel has been mounting for years.

At Women's Justice Center, where our clients are routinely blocked from emergency services by top-down agency refusal to properly bridge the language barrier, we hope this victory will finally force the county to meet it's legal obligations to the non English-speaking community -

- Not by exploiting a couple bilingual officers and making them handle it all, and not by continued contempt in pretending the problem doesn't exist, but by finally creating the comprehensive, full service, bilingual infrastructure the law requires.


In a labor dispute which has escalated sharply over the last year, Sonoma County probation officers say they've been "overwhelmed" by increasing daily demands to translate beyond their own caseloads. They are run so ragged, they say, translating for all the other officers' caseloads, and for clerical workers, too, they can't get their own jobs done.

Out of 107 sworn deputy probation officers in Sonoma County, only 4 of these 107 are certified bilingual. This is absurdly out of sync with our local population where, according to the 2000 US census, 1 out of every 5 households in the county speaks Spanish in the home. Like most public agencies in Sonoma County, the Probation Dept. has heaped the burden of meeting the bilingual needs on a very few bilingual personnel.

Settlement Agreement
Ends Translating Servitude

The probation case in question began heating up a year ago last fall when the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association which represents the officers met with Probation administrators to relay officer complaints of overwhelming translating demands. Probation administrators promised to meet with the officers, but never did.

In the following months, Probation administrators continued to ignore the officers' concerns and their suggestions for better handling bilingual needs. Last February, the officers' distress reached the breaking point. The bilingual officers signed a joint letter to Probation Chief Cora Guy giving thirty days notice that they were giving up their bilingual premium pay of $.95 an hour, and that they would no longer translate on demand. Probation Chief Guy wrote back ordering the officers to continue translating - or face discipline up to and including firing.

It was following this brick wall rebuff by Chief Cora Guy, that the bilingual officers through their association filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the California State Public Employment Relations Board against Cora Guy and other county administrators.

On October 12, 2004, in response to the labor board review, Sonoma County Consul and Probation Chief Cora Guy signed a settlement agreement affirming the bilingual officers' right to opt out of bilingual pay premium programs that require the officer to translate on demand. Though the officers still must translate a call back time or an appointment time to non-English speakers, they can no longer be called out of their own work, against their will, and be ordered to translate for others on "substantive or procedural issues and explanations".

Sonoma County "Cluelessness"

The overall problem is rooted in the county's sheer "cluelessness" says Shawn Dufosee, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Officers Assoc. which represents the officers; county "cluelessness" on the population realities of their own county, on their legal obligations to limited English-speakers, and on how to properly treat their bilingual personnel. Dufosee's assessment is echoed by Carolyn Lopez, field representative of SEIU local 707 which represents about 2,000 county workers in health and human service fields. According to Lopez, county administrators talk about the need for interpreters, "And they talk about it....and they talk about it....and they talk about it." And the way they talk about it, says Lopez, is "like it's a nuisance".

The SEIU has been involved in a parallel dispute with the county over unjust translating demands on their workers. Over a year ago, in September 2003, as part of contract negotiations, the SEIU won an agreement that the county would establish a county wide bilingual committee to address bilingual worker concerns.

The bilingual officer goes to work in the morning to his or her own job, says Dufosee, then quickly and unpredictably gets jerked around throughout the day - every day - to interpret for other colleagues' caseloads, and for clerical. Like most bilingual personnel, the bilingual probation officers are torn between a need to free themselves from abusive work demands on the one hand, and a desire to help the under served Latino population on the other. Most bilingual personnel are, themselves, Latino. They've tried to juggle the conflict, but the county's abuse became so extreme, the officers concluded they were neither helping the public nor themselves by putting up with it any longer.

"These officers were hired as probation officers," says Dufosee, "They're not translators, and they're not clerical." "They want to get back to doing the probation officer work that the public pays them to do." To emphasize the extremes of the abuse, both Dufosee in law enforcement and Lopez in health and human services say they know of fully bilingual officers and personnel who "won't cop to being bilingual" in order to avoid rampant county abuse they see of their colleagues' bilingual skills.

A Long Time Brewing

Though the October 12 settlement agreement with probation officers is the first time officers in the county have won legal relief from translating servitude, it's not the first time that officer distress over these demands has broken into open protest. In 1995 when Sonoma County Sheriff Deputy Frank Trejo was shot and killed, at least 25 potential witnesses to the shooting were monolingual Spanish-speaking. They had to be interviewed and taped, and then the Spanish language taped interviews had to be translated into English and transcribed.

Bilingual officers from throughout Sonoma County and beyond were pulled off their own work assignments and pressed to the task. Months and months later, some of these same bilingual officers were still spending their entire days translating and transcribing the taped interviews. Some of the officers protested vehemently that translating and transcribing tapes was outside their job descriptions, but the officers didn't prevail. At least one of these bilingual officers quit his job in protest.

Cluelessness or Contempt?

The struggle by bilingual probation officers, in fact, comes after more than a decade of community attempts to pressure public officials to properly meet bilingual needs. This year's fracture at the Probation Dept. is just one of many current indications that our county's 'clueless' response to the Latino population would probably be better characterized as outright contempt.

On October 27, the Press Democrat reported on Santa Rosa education officials' complete destruction in one year's time of Santa Rosa's bilingual education programs. And on October 28, the same paper reported a protest meeting in Windsor of 260 Latinos who were livid at the continuous mistreatment they receive from Sheriff's deputies who patrol the area.

And in response to our early November questions about progress towards a remedy, deputy Probation Chief Bob Ochs says, "I don't know if we have specific plans. We're always looking for ways to better serve the public. This kind of disdain from county administrators goes a long way to illustrate why the county's bilingual needs are at the breaking point.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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