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Los Angeles County court interpreters returned to work Wednesday after a six-week strike that failed to yield a desired pay increase.

More than 300 interpreters took part in the job action, union officials said. Members of the largely Latino, middle-class union had sought a 22% pay hike over five years, to match annual increases of other court employees, a demand court officials refused to meet.

Silvia Barden, president of the California Federation of Interpreters, said union members voted Monday to return to work at the urging of state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). She had called a hearing in Los Angeles on Monday and asked the interpreters to report back in order to restore service to those who needed them.

"They may not have won the battle, but they have achieved heightened respect," Romero said.

During the walkout, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo issued statements, warning of serious disruptions to the court system. Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said the courts managed to remain open, without dismissing cases, using about 100 interpreters, including some union members who returned to work during the strike.

But numerous cases were rescheduled for later dates, a practice that could not have continued, he said. "Eventually it comes back to haunt you," Parachini said of the backlog formed by repeated continuances.

Although interpreters for Los Angeles County courts earn more than $73,000 a year, they do not receive the annual increases granted to other court employees.

The interpreters received a 2.5% pay raise last year, and after a series of meetings during the summer with court officials, were offered a 4% pay increase in August. But the failure to win annual increases prompted the decision to strike.

Parachini said the courts were strapped for funds.

"We are essentially in a predicament. This is not just a negotiating tactic, it's the literal truth. There is not anything else we can give them," he said.

Barden said the makeup of the union -- 70% female and 85% foreign-born -- might put them under a discriminatory "glass ceiling."

"If you look at our demographics, it's hard to ignore," she said.

Of court interpreters' pay, Barden said "everyone would agree that's a good starting salary," but without annual pay increases, "our starting salary is our ending salary. There is no career path."

Julie Drucker, a French and Spanish interpreter for the courts since 1991, said she and many of her colleagues were worthy of pay comparable to other court employees, such as court reporters. Interpreters hold advanced degrees and have cleared a certification exam which only one out of 10 pass, she said.

"You have to be completely bicultural, have proficiency in at least two languages and have a strong command of specialized terminology," said Drucker, who holds a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA.

The union has over 400 members, all but six in Los Angeles. The remaining six interpreters work in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo courts.

More than 90% of the union members participated in the strike, Barden said.

Barden said the postponements hurt the working poor who do not get paid days off from their jobs to go to court.

"These are day laborers or people who work cleaning houses," she said.

Parachini said the courts learned to operate more efficiently with fewer interpreters. By better coordinating case schedules and temporarily establishing a Spanish-language arraignment courtroom, interpreters' downtime was reduced, he said.

"We realized we can't run the courts with 100 interpreters, but it may be true we may not need the current staff level," he said.

But "it's not as if we are going to lay off half the interpreters tomorrow. Any fear of anything remotely like that needs to be allayed," Parachini said.

The union had pointed out that the state held surplus funds for interpreters, but Parachini called the money "a cushion" in case demand for them increases.

Because interpreters are used on a case-by-case basis, "there is no way of knowing absolutely the utilization over a year. That money is off the table," he said.

The interpreters' formal contract renewal negotiations begin in March, Parachini said.

Romero said she has scheduled a meeting with California Chief Justice Ronald M. George and state Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), chairwoman of the California Judiciary Committee, to discuss interpreters' salaries.

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