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Pittsfield city council votes to increase pay for bilingual employees

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council approved an increase in pay for bilingual municipal employees at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Under the newly amended ordinance, city workers will take home a monthly stipend of $175 for either speaking or reading and writing a second language or $225 for being proficient in both. Director of Human Resources Michael Taylor presented the plan to the council.

“The reason that I'm coming for you for a blanket increase is having that feedback from that staff that there's an added there's an added workload, obviously, that comes with this," he said. "More and more of our departments are wanting the translation for the various forms and documents in the department, but also, for anyone that is visiting our departments, our residents that need that translator, they're being called often away from their desks to help. So, in getting that feedback from the staff, that there's more of it, it just seems as though it would be appropriate to increase the pay for that.”

Debate among councilors ensued. At-large city councilor Karen Kalinowsky, a former police officer, expressed concerns about a blanket increase.

“Yes, I did take Spanish for law enforcement," she said. "Yes, I did pass a test. But I'm at level one. And what I'm trying to get across is when someone comes in and is proficient and has Spanish as their, you know, whether they grew up with it, or, you know, they're just very proficient, they're up here. I’m level one, they’re up here. I'm just trying to say that how this is put against is, a person up at this level should get paid more than this level.”

Taylor told the council that of the city’s 500 employees, only eight would qualify for the increase. Ward 5 city councilor Patrick Kavey questioned him about the details of the proposal.

“Have you ever had a situation where you have a department where, let's use Spanish as an example, where someone who's a native Spanish speaker comes into City Hall, and they're not able to communicate with anyone in that department so you have to grab someone from a different department to go in and translate?" Kavey asked.

“Every day,” responded Taylor.

“So, sometimes people from other departments are going into different departments, which is not under their purview and are not part of their job description, to help translate for other departments?” asked the city councilor.

“Yes," said Taylor.

“OK, thank you," said Kavey. "And then we'll talk about proficiency. So, I took four years of Spanish in school. I wouldn't say that I was proficient, but I can go back and forth, I can understand a little bit, I can read a little bit. With that knowledge, if I had a conversation with someone who is a native Spanish speaker and you were there and you knew that I wasn't necessarily proficient, but I could still communicate with them, would I be eligible for this?”

“Potentially, but right now, the way the policy is written, I would say no," said Taylor. "It does require you to be certified.”

“So, even though I took four years of Spanish, and I can go back and forth with some native Spanish speakers, and I can read what they're putting in front of me, I would need to be certified in a certain way, go through a language program, have someone teach me so we would know that I was proficient?” asked Kavey.

“Yes,” answered Taylor.

“Alright," said Kavey. "Thank you, Director.”

City Clerk Michele Benjamin said reinforcing bilingual capabilities for her office is a valuable investment.

“We have people who speak Spanish daily," she told the council. "And we use Google translation with our phones, and when we're having trouble helping them, we'll call in one of the three people in this building who are so happy to come translate for us. They're not called away from their office, you know, once an hour – I mean, if we call them three, four times a week, that might be a lot – But they're so happy, and when the people who are speaking another language has that person who can translate for them, they are elated. And I just did the math, and it would be less than $18,000 for all eight people to have this stipend. And I think it would cost a full-time translator much more.”

Ward 6 city councilor Dina Lampiasi also spoke in support of the plan.

“I think it makes the city of Pittsfield a more equitable employer," she said. "And we all know that we historically don't, we're not the top payer in terms of local government. And we're trying right? And to retain our employees and really give them an incentive. But also, in the daily work when somebody knows a language and there's a need for it and problem solving and communicating with residents that might come in, it's really important that those residents are being paid for their work for their labor.”

The motion passed 9 to 2, with Kalinowsky and Ward 2 city councilor Charles Kronick in opposition.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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