We are in the middle of a historic snowstorm in what is otherwise classified as a temperate rain forest. Schools and courts along with most businesses are closed. So are a lot of roads. Anyone who can stay home will stay home. Professionals on salary will get their full salaries. Hourly workers will probably not. What about professional contractors, such as court interpreters?

I received two emails in close succession from a local court. The first reminded me that the “pay policy” for court interpreters is that no matter how late a snow closure is announced, we do not get paid for that day, not even the standard minimum two hours for a late cancellation. This could mean we are on our way, fighting the storm and making our best effort to get in, only to then turn around and come back home, with no pay. But if the court does not close, we are expected to be there on time and ready to work. And no time is stated for when that notice will be provided.

So court interpreters are told that a last-minute snow cancellation equals zero pay, under the theory that an emergency releases the court from its obligations to the workers. Okay. But a second email tells us there is a very important exception to the rule: If the court doesn’t give us at least two hours notice, we get paid. Haha! Just kidding. The exception is that any court interpreter who is assigned to jail for in-custody arraignments had better get there and interpret, even when the roads are closed, the courthouses are closed, and most buses are not running. Why? We are told we must fulfill our obligations, because we have contracted to do so. Weather is no exception. “You must report!” the email tells us.

Talk about having it both ways. The court contracts us to work for pay, then cancels us without adequate notice, sometimes when we are on our way in the snow. Yet the workers are told we have to uphold our end of the contract, because we have agreed to be there, even though the paying party “reserves the right” to cancel our work without pay and without reasonable minimum notice. This kind of policy is so common in the US that I wonder how many workers even react to it.

Some courts actually put in the extra time and effort so that as soon as they get their insider notice of closure (at 6:00 a.m.) their schedulers immediately relay the snow closure decision to each scheduled interpreter via email. That gives us two and a half hours notice so we can stay warm at home rather than getting halfway to court before finding out that there is no court. I was very happy to get reasonable notice of today’s cancellation and save the unpaid efforts to walk, hitchhike, and shove my way into overcrowded buses (all of which I did last time it snowed, because that time court was NOT cancelled and I fulfilled my obligation to show up).

As to the in-custody arraignments, there is an easy solution that would be quite reasonable under the circumstances: have scheduled interpreters appear via phone. And pay them. As to the rest of the pay policy, obligations run both ways. Courts who are most considerate of their workers are going to have the goodwill to call upon when emergencies arise. And if we don’t want to rely on goodwill for our treatment at work, it is time to unionize.