Many court reporters need an extra helping hand when it comes to computer hardware and I’m a proponent of free-flowing information. Details on GEEKABYTE’s summer deal below! The high RAM makes all of these great choices if you’re on the market for a workstation.
Protect Your Record’s Summer 2022 newsletter, The Record Protector, has been released. There’s a lot to read about this issue, including the story of what happened to StoryCloud in Texas with Jo Ann and Dennis Holmgren, a message from PYRP President Kimberly D’Urso, a vocabulary test, an article about Shaunise Day’s Fearless Stenographers conference. Sheri Smargon from the Florida Court Reporters Association wrote about her path through this field, as well as the importance of educating clients on what we do. There is also a California law and legislative update from Kim Kuziora, an update from Allie Hall on the liveliness of steno education, stenotype talk with Victor Nolasco from Personal Touch, and a call for future contributions.
The growth of stenographic media not only helps us communicate important ideas with each other, it helps give recognition to those of us that are going above and beyond to connect, educate, and advocate. I am very impressed by Kimberly D’Urso, Charlotte Mathias, and everyone else that put this together. I sincerely hope all of you will give the newsletter a read!
One factor I’ve identified as a reason for stenographer shortage is terrible compensation. While it may be difficult for some court reporters to learn, there are people in this field working decades behind inflation. There are reporters that haven’t had a raise for the better part of a decade or more. When it comes to reporter treatment, there’s a spectrum of treatment as wide as the reporter spectrum of skill, and the two don’t necessarily correlate.
Unionization is an interesting topic because many of us consider ourselves independent contractors. There are lots of resources out there for understanding employee misclassification and common law employees versus independent contractors. The IRS even lists public stenographers under independent contractors because we’ve become so ubiquitously associated with independent contracting. Generally, independent contractors cannot form a union, and recent federal rule changes have made that clear. In New York, we had the Federation of Shorthand for deposition reporters, but it no longer exists.
The question of whether someone is an employee or independent contractor is something of interest to many government agencies and courts, and something that is not always clear in the court reporting and captioning industry. What two parties call a relationship is mostly irrelevant for determining what that relationship is under the law. As an example of the kind of things that courts consider, let’s check out the Ninth Circuit:
Using a test like this, one starts to see the different interpretations possible. Recent rule changes focus even more so on the right to control work of the “employer” and the profit or loss or the employee. Some may be incredulous, “we control our hours! We’re independent contractors!” But such a blanket answer does not and never will address the truth, that many agencies demand a specific layout, specific page rates, or bar reporters from sending others on jobs accepted by the reporter. There’s a lot of control that reporters give up for the “right to work,” and in some cases it arguably would make us employees if and when it were challenged in court. Companies have settled such claims in the past, probably to prevent precedent from taking hold and court reporters realizing that the “freedom” of “independent contracting” effectively silences discussions on worker pay and working conditions, conveniently placing the blame on the “entrepreneur,” who could be a 20 year old, newly graduated, with no comprehension of the business. How well can we expect them to do when instructors tell them how high the demand is for their skills and companies beat them down and deny that value in the name of the almighty dollar?
Captioners aren’t released from this discussion either. Some captioners work as employees, some work as independent contractors, and the distinctions aren’t always clear or consistent in the same company, let alone across multiple companies.
There’s no doubt in my mind that unionization can help more of us. I am a member of ASSCR, and prior to that I was a member of Local 1070. Prior to that, I was New York freelance. Nothing is ever perfect, but my job security and compensation rose tremendously when I gave up freelancing for officialship. If the two had been remotely close, I’d still be a deposition reporter. I loved it. Love doesn’t pay the bills.
The main jab that people give when discussing unionization is the right to refuse work. Reporters don’t want to give that up. But an employment contract drafted by a smart union for per diem or commission-based employees, which is essentially what many of us are, could simply include the right to refuse work. People could still be paid by page. There is not a single “right” granted by being independent contractors that could not be covered in an employment contract. A lot of the smaller gripes around unionization seem to be from thinking too deeply inside the box and assuming we’d have to conform to low hourly wages, which is simply a lie perpetuated by people afraid of the word “union.”
The main hurdle with regard to unionization, and what makes it unlikely in my view, is reporter organization and willpower. At least 30% of the reporters at a given company or location would have to come together, make the case that they were common law employees, and request a vote to join a union. Then they’d have to actually win the vote! A lot of people in the private sector don’t know who works for who. We don’t even have great data on the total number of court reporters that exist. How can we expect someone to unionize a location they never go to or confer with colleagues they never see? Even more confusing, some court reporters will easily meet the definition of independent contractor while others could be defined as employees. Some court reporters are simply afraid to discuss unionization because of potential retaliation.
Our realtimers might scoff at such a discussion, but if we think of court reporting as a pyramid where the realtimers sit on top, and we think of the exploited common law employee class of reporter as the bottom, it’s easy to see why realtimers need that bottom to be strong. How long will realtime rates remain high if the floor drops out from under you? The only “good” answer I’ve seen to this question is “well, I should be able to make it to retirement, so I don’t care.” My answer to that is “a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.” But even if a reader is a self-centered prick that doesn’t care about that, how much more money do you think realtimers will be able to ask for once the base pay is back where it should be? It’s in the self-centered prick’s interest to add fuel to this fire too.
I also believe our associations, the primary drivers for our defense currently, would never assist or support such endeavors. Unions are likely seen as a threat. Once a union exists, is an association necessary? But the very thing driving association membership into the ground is the inability of associations to directly influence rate discussions and their unwillingness to collect and distribute rate data. There’s even some chance association membership would rise, since people would likely have more to spend. If associations want to remain relevant, it may make sense to start looking out for reporters, and particularly the ones that are struggling, instead of milking the certification cow until it’s dead.
On the digital front, unionization could lead to negotiations where stenographers are given work preference by contract instead of the situation we have now, where the companies “promise” we’re number one and quietly do everything they can to push us out of the market.
I think the threat needs to be on the table for the larger companies. They will have no choice but to raise rates as unionization discussions spread. It’s working in other industries and will work in ours. In the short term, we could expect dirty tricks. In the long term, we could expect higher wages for all reporters, union and non-union. Feel free to like, comment, or share if that’s a future you want!
Shortly after the launch of this post, a reader sent me this TikTok. In brief, adjusting prices upward can attract a different quality of customer. So those that fearmonger pricing ourselves out of the market might be interested in viewing that.
I’m opening up a 6-question survey to the public, as well as court reporting providers, for court reporting rates.
Associations are allowed to collect and distribute aggregate rate data. I’ve provided information on how newbie court reporters are taken advantage of, sometimes working decades behind inflation, due to the dearth of data about the court reporting & stenotype services industry. It is very clear to me that we must move beyond the fallacy of being unable to discuss rates that has been drilled into court reporters’ collective conscience. We must replace it with a more nuanced truth: Discussions and historical data are fair game. It is collusion and the appearance of collusion among competitors that is problematic for those of us that are true independent contractors and associations. Failing to approach this with some nuance allows our silence to be weaponized against our new people, who are told their skills are worth much less than they actually are. They try to make it work and end up leaving because they’re working too hard for too little money.
Associations also risk falling behind if they do not have this data. A lot of players are scraping up court reporter data today, including Capvision, LEK Consulting, Dialectica, and Guidepoint. I cannot yet say conclusively say how the data is being used, but I can absolutely say that it is not in the hands of court reporters, and therefore we are once again playing “catch up.”
This survey focuses on California, Illinois, New York, and Texas. As of the Ducker Report, those states had the highest court reporting demand (page 13). If you’d like to take part in the survey, please do so. You may also submit your e-mail for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card.
I am hopeful that the data collected will be a useful start to understanding the current state of the market. If nothing else, it should provide a base for discussion. Results should be announced sometime in Q3 2022.
A member of our court reporting community was sent an e-mail soliciting work at $0.60 per audio minute. For contrast, I have heard of reporters working for $100 an audio hour or more, or the equivalent of $1.67 per audio minute, and that was over 10 years ago. It would be about $2.25 per audio minute today, or about $135 per hour, adjusted for inflation.
Many of us would take issue with that kind of an offer, but this stenographer took the opportunity to educate.
The company rep apologized and explained that she was not aware. But the stenographer in question kept educating and advocating. I will note that, based on my knowledge of the industry, I believe there’s a typo here, $35 per minute should likely be $35 per page. For anyone not in the field, typically 40 to 60 pages an hour can be expected, meaning 0.66 to 1 page per minute.
The corporate rep replied honestly. She had no idea about the earning potential of court reporters.
Our brave friend continued to educate on the state of the industry.
To which our company rep closed with:
There are a number of takeaways here. Taking everything at face value, we’re now opened to the possibility that at least some of these company reps are not adequately trained or briefed on the earning potential of court reporters. But it is interesting to note that a company representative is completely aware that AI is not adequate for transcription. It points to a world where we can be drivers of change by simply describing the truth.
It is very unfortunate that companies are diving into the space without an adequate plan to reimburse independently contracted transcribers. But if we can all respond with the above tact and facts when dealing with company reps and transcribers, we can create a shield of information where no one is unknowingly taken advantage of. Not only is speaking up the right thing to do; it will have the desirable effect of increasing job security for stenographic court reporters.
A big thank you for sharing these messages with all of us on Stenonymous.
A reader shared that if one is on the Massachusetts ACT list, they’re paid $3 per page, meaning $0.60 per minute would be a serious reduction in that rate. Even at a highly skilled level, one audio hour can equal one or two transcription hours, meaning that $0.60 a minute is the equivalent of $0.20 a minute or $12 an hour. Unskilled transcribers can take much longer, particularly if the audio quality is bad, meaning their true hourly rate is even lower.
Ana Fatima Costa, AKA MockWoman, is a coach and mentor in our field that has been providing internships for court reporters for over 13 years free of charge. To continue this program, there is now a cost of $197 for the experience, which may be covered by the apprentice, a mentor, or a sponsoring agency/business. I sponsored a student in the past and it was a good experience for them, so I have real faith in Ana’s ability to provide an excellent internship experience.
Do you know anyone that might benefit from this real-world experience of simulated testimony and learning under Ana’s guidance? Please consider letting them know about this opportunity or sponsoring them today. See the social media page or check out the informational PDF below.
The event is June 23 and June 24 at 3 Embarcadero Center, 20th floor, San Francisco, CA 94111.
For more information, e-mail email@example.com.
When I started Stenonymous in 2017, I had a vision of a platform where many of us would come together sharing perspectives and ideas about the court reporting/captioning and stenotype services industry. I didn’t get many people that wanted to write on Stenonymous, and I rode things out mostly on my own writing, research, and perspective.
Times are changing. While this blog is not yet the economic powerhouse that I have calculated it could become, I am in a much better place to offer prospective writers and content creators something for their time. If you’d like to create for Stenonymous, please read my pitch!
Stenonymous utilizes WordPress. I can send you an e-mail invite to become a contributor and you can sign up in a matter of minutes.
I cover the cost of running the website through my own funds and donations that come in. Writers won’t be asked to pay anything upfront.
By pairing up with this blog, you’ll have some viewership automatically. At the present time, we get about 2,000 visitors (4,000 views) a month, with large increases when the ad money is flowing in. You could go out and build your own platform, but do you need to?
I’d like to work together to get writers paid and expand the diversity and depth of content available. If you can get an advertiser for your content, feel free to keep 100% of that. If I get an advertiser for your content, let’s split that revenue. If you get people to send you money directly, feel free to keep 100% of that. If you want to use my platform to take payment, utilizing the new “Sell Downloads” feature, I can also track how many people want to support a specific writer, and I’d be willing to give you 90% of what comes in for you. For an example of how this works, check out the page I made myself. Since we are early in the process of building Stenonymous, writers that come in will be helping me shape the direction the blog takes with regard to feel and monetization.
There Are Few Limits.
If it’s about court reporting, captioning, or stenotype services, it pretty much flies. While I do intend to exercise some discretion, and wouldn’t publish “just anything,” I don’t want this to necessarily be an echo chamber where every writer agrees with me. That’s boring.
If you’re considering giving it a try, feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you set up. Thank you!
About ten days ago I launched an ad campaign to survey the public about court reporting. Question number one, had they heard about us?
When asked what terms were associated with court reporting, respondents overwhelmingly selected terms like “fast,” “technological,” and “adaptive,” over words like “old.”
Then I asked respondents if they could tell a court reporter anything, what would it be? The majority of responses were positive, with comments like “great job” or “bless you for listening to all the nonsense.” There were about six negative comments, with things like “your days are numbered.” There were a series of questions, like, “how do you like your job?” Finally, there were comments that didn’t fit into a simple “positive,” “negative,” or “question” category. These were comments like “smoke weed” or “I wish I had stayed in my stenography class.” The responses are in Google Sheets (Excel) format here. If you would like a simple PDF where the responses have already been categorized, download below.
Finally, I asked respondents for their e-mail if they wanted more information about stenography. Nearly 40 people provided their e-mail, and tomorrow morning, will receive the following message:
For this advertisement, 20,707 people were reached with 1,668 engagements and 614 link clicks.
What can we learn from this? Well, for starters, the majority of people have heard of what we do. The majority of people do not associate the term “old” with stenography. This is an eye opener, because prior to this survey, I believed our biggest issue was overcoming the view that we are obsolete. The survey results seem to point more toward a public that largely understands this skill is not outdated. This may change how we talk about steno, no longer coming from a place of defense, but pride, and helping others understand why it is a good career.
This may also redefine the way we discuss shortage. If the perception of being “old” is not what is stopping people from getting into this field, what is it? I would submit that the problem, at least partially, goes back to pay. In these times of allegedly insurmountable shortage, I’ve learned that some companies in my hometown of New York City are paying lower than $3.50 per page. That’s simply too low to attract and retain talent, and far below the $5.74 it would be today had the rate kept up with inflation. It’s easy to say, “skill up.” But if we “skill up” a field of people that struggle with knowing their value, all we’re really doing is setting ourselves up to have the realtime rates drop through the floor. Seems to me that marketing and sales training would provide better outcomes than realtime at this point.
Please feel free to spread the results of this survey. Information leads to new ideas, and there are over 27,000 court reporter minds out there that might come up with bigger and better solutions.
So the Depp v Heard trial has been dominating headlines for a while. It wasn’t good enough for stenography industry news until it started popping up on stenographer social media. Questions started to surface about a video that allegedly showed Judy Bellinger, a stenographer covering the trial, hugging Johnny Depp at an after party. There was skepticism on the part of many stenographers, and it was eventually revealed that the moment captured on camera actually occurred when Judy went to get her equipment.
An outrage story turned into a feel-good one, at least until Judy was quoted as saying some jurors were dozing off.
Once again, stenographer social media was alight with a mix of support and outrage. For some of us, having somebody tell it like it is is cathartic. Many take issue with a court reporter commenting so publicly on specific identifiable proceedings she reported.
Now, I’m an advocate for the integrity of our profession. My personal stance is that I’ll agree with just about anyone that believes we shouldn’t be commenting much on our cases. But I have to give substantial credit, Bellinger’s managed to get more press coverage for the word stenographer than I have, and I’ve put considerable effort in.
One thing I spotted on social media? Stenographer stress. I’d like to offer some new perspectives to diminish that stress. This is a chance for all of us to go back to our mentees and professional circles and have a discussion about best practices. It’s ultimately about growth. I know many of us feel that one bad incident or “misspeaking” can reflect poorly on us all. But I’ve come to a realization that few professions have that sort of thinking, and the ones that do, such as law enforcement, have it thrust on them by media, they don’t agree and say “ah, yes, a cop did an arguably questionable thing, so we’re all questionable!” We need to let go of that mindset of absolutism for our own sanity and advancement.
As for advancement, I would propose steering the discussions toward what we tell our students. As of writing, I would propose the following:
- On the initial video that showed the hug. Let our students know that there are cameras just about everywhere and that guarding against the appearance of impropriety is important. This is not to say that Judy Bellinger did anything wrong, but we still have a valid discussion in that it is a tricky thing to guard against the “appearance” of something because everyone has a slightly different bar for “appearance.” For example, my only training on guarding against the appearance of impropriety, which I had over half a decade ago, involved second guessing even shaking a party’s hand in court. There are also state and regional attitudes to consider.
- On the quote about jurors dozing off, I have to say that my personal stance is to generally avoid commenting on matters I’ve taken, especially if they are identifiable. This is not to say I believe court reporters should never have or even express an opinion. Again, this is not to say Judy Bellinger did anything wrong. But there are ways to make comments about sleeping jurors without making comments about sleeping jurors. “You know, I’ve been doing this for X years, and I notice that sometimes jurors don’t appear to be paying full attention.” “What about in this case?” “I decline to comment on this case.” I’d propose going ahead and having a discussion with students about talking to the media.
- On the right v wrong argument. No matter where you sit on the spectrum of any argument or debate, there’s a “reality wins” component. For an idea of how this works, we can examine my blogging. I’ve made the case many times that the pay in New York is atrocious to the point of being “wrong.” Some court reporting companies do not care and continue to pay stenographers less than $3.50 per page. The reality of the situation changes dependent upon how successful I am at applying social and/or economic pressure and not how “right” I am. Similarly, in an analysis of whether Judy Bellinger did anything wrong, being right means very little. The real challenge is in creating, communicating, and seeing through the adoption of better ways to handle similar situations. Training our students to be solution-oriented people and avoid the black-and-white, good-versus-evil thinking that grips many of us, including myself from time to time, will create better outcomes.
I have no idea what might arise as a result of the media coverage. Should new developments arise, I’ll post an addendum. Please feel free to comment below even if you disagree with my assessment! I’ve never censored a non-spam comment and don’t intend to start!
Everyone has different page rates, but utilizing historic data from 1991 and 1999, we can get a rough idea of what the page rates would be today had they been consistently updated for inflation. It’s my hope that putting this out there often enough helps reporters know their value.
First, let’s look at the freelance rates adjusted for inflation by year. For the freelance rates, I pulled the 1991 rates right out of an old Federation of Shorthand manual.
I took the 2.75 rate from 1991, and I adjusted it for inflation each year using a Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. In 1992, for example, that $2.75 in 1991 dollars was worth $2.82 in 1992 dollars. If a reporter didn’t get a $0.07 raise between 1991 and 1992, that reporter lost buying power, and would have to work about 2% harder to make the same buying power. Doesn’t seem that bad, right? But by 2022, that $2.75 in 1991 dollars is worth $5.74 in 2022 dollars. This means that a reporter that is not making $5.74 in 2022 on a regular has to work harder to have the same buying power as a 1991 reporter. This means a reporter making $4.00 a page has to take 30% more pages than a reporter in 1991 in order to have the same buying power.
As an example of how this plays out for new reporters, when I was a new reporter in 2010 at Jaguar Reporting, I was offered $2.80 a page. Not knowing anything about the field, I took it. Adjusted for inflation, the 2010 rate would have been $4.43 on a regular. This means that to have the same buying power as a 1991 reporter, I would have had to have taken almost 40% more pages than that 1991 reporter. That’s a lot of efficiency to squeeze out of workers, whether you want to consider us common law employees or independent contractors.
Juxtaposing freelance versus official rates can be even more concerning. Officials typically receive their pages on top of a salary. Many are producing fewer pages, but adjusted for inflation, the rates appear to be far higher.
This “squeezing of efficiency” is not sustainable in the long term. The rates must go up in order to obtain and retain talent. For as long as they do not, we are asking reporters to work harder for less buying power.
This is not normal. The average workers’ pay has gone up slightly, adjusted for inflation. Because most court reporters are working for less than they were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation, stenographers’ pay has gone down. Just check out the Statista data on that. After a 2009 to 2015 crash, wages sharply rose on average. And this data doesn’t even take into account “the great resignation” of 2021 and 2022, where employees are leaving jobs for higher pay at rates never seen before!
Find more statistics at Statista
While I’ll be the first to say that this is a wonderful career and I enjoy it very much, and I’ll even go so far as to concede we don’t have to keep up with inflation perfectly for it to remain a great career, I think this data makes the case for why there is a shortage today. We are simply not competitive in terms of wage growth, and we are asking young people and newbies to work harder for less buying power — again, in some cases, 40% less. This is compared to the average worker between 1991 and 2020, who, by 2020, could work about 15% less and have the same buying power that they did in 1991!
The lack of data in and on our field remains a fundamental problem. Trade associations are entitled to collect and distribute aggregated rate data. If we had good data from 1991 to now on the average page rate, we could simply adjust those years to be in 2022 dollars and show everyone that they’ve gone up or down. Because we do not have the data, we’re stuck with taking a fixed point in history where we knew the rate, adjusting that each year, and then comparing that to what each of us makes personally.
I’ve created another spreadsheet with all of this information. It’s available for everyone, and I encourage people to share it. It not only informs people in the stenographic camp, but also in voice writing and digital court reporting, because ultimately if they are working for less than stenographic court reporters, they are being taken advantage of while being used to push us out of the market.
Hourly Conversion for Digitals:
A stenographic to digital comparison is possible by estimating average pages per hour. As a freelancer, I averaged about 40 pages an hour. Current freelancers have told me they can get as much as 60 pages an hour. The court reporter page rate encompasses transcription time and “writing time.” It can be 1 to 2 hours for every hour on the machine, so it’s safe to assume writing time is about a third of the page rate. If we take the $5.74, that 1991 rate adjusted into 2022 dollars, we can calculate that a third of that is $1.89.
Assuming 40 pages an hour, that “writing time” is worth about $75.77 an hour.
Assuming 60 pages an hour, that “writing time” is worth about $113.65 an hour.
This creates a valid argument that a digital charging less than $75.77 an hour is being underpaid. Obviously, I don’t personally believe, based on all I know today, that digital reporting is equivalent to stenography, but there are some outfits and organizations that insist on perpetuating this myth of equivalency. If they are equal, the next question is whether they are being paid equally to their historic “equals.” If the answer is no, the next question is “why?”
Conversions for Transcribers:
Again, taking my assumption, based on my own experience, that transcription time is worth at least two thirds of the page rate, we can create page and hourly conversions for transcribers. From that $5.74 rate, we can derive a page rate of $3.82 in transcription time.
Assuming 40 pages an hour, that’s about $152.80 an hour.
Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s about $229.20 an hour.
Hourly Conversion for Stenographers and Voice Writers:
Assuming 40 pages an hour and the $5.74 adjusted rate, the transcription time and writing time together is worth about $229.60 an hour.
Assuming 60 pages an hour and the $5.74 adjusted rate, the transcription time and writing time together is worth about $344.40 an hour.
This might seem like a lot of money. But remember that the $229.60 to $344.40 an hour figures encompass 3 hours’ worth of work. Interestingly enough, this averages out to $76.53 to $114.80 an hour, which is comparable to what captioners charge.
Ultimately, we can play with numbers all day long. If my work falls on blind eyes, then people will continue to get underpaid, grow discontent with the field, and leave. Because this is a very specialized field where we get better with time in, the loss of a practitioner is massive — you cannot just replace someone who’s been at this for a year, or two, or ten, slip someone brand new in, and get the same quality transcript. People will move on regardless of the methodology. I have offered fairly concrete math on the fact that we are underpaying most practitioners during a time of alleged shortage.
My next step, when I have some more time or funding, will be to begin collecting and distributing data myself. But again, I have to stress that this is something that our associations should have been doing for the last 30 years, and instead were trained and training reporters that they could not do, which enabled rate abuse that drove reporters out of the field over the last decade. This is why it is so insulting to me when it is alleged that the stenographer shortage cannot be solved. It does not take a genius to figure out that giving a class of workers the equivalent of $5.74 in 1991 and watching that value erode year after year is going to drive workers away — a fact that has somehow eluded the CEOs and business types of steno-America, and a fact that I hope is understood and embraced by the majority of our field over the next decade.
Lisa Migliore had this to add. While I feel it doesn’t detract from the overall flow of what I’m saying, I do think it is an important point and information that deserves to be included here.