Private equity’s incursion into medicine, court reporting, and beyond is about siphoning more of the ecosystem to its control because control makes more money, regardless of the societal consequences. If it truly had a better product, there would be no need for subterfuge. The future belongs to reporters. Together we can give a voice to the principles of accuracy and integrity we hold dear.
Veritext and Esquire brought antitrust suits that seemingly were consolidated against the Louisiana Board of Examiners of Certified Court Reporters. The complaint and settlement agreement can be found on the board’s website. The rules of this game should now be pretty clear. Where court reporters get laws enacted and there are attempts to enforce those laws, lawsuits will follow to wear down the will to enforce the law. Where court reporters fight to enact laws, the multimillion dollar corporations will have more money to lobby government and probably buy our lobbyists too. Where court reporters have laws that go unenforced, the multimillion dollar corporations get to corner and control the market oligopoly style while the government keeps the court reporters in check. Meanwhile, associations are hamstrung by the legal liability of being “competitor collectives.” I’ve only ever said what we’re all thinking: This game is rigged. That is not to say the lawsuit wasn’t meritorious, but then the law isn’t always just.
This situation is not without hope. Over the years I’ve read and written about employee misclassification. Things vary a little bit from place to place, but my understanding of the law is it doesn’t matter what the “employer” and worker call the relationship, a worker can still be found to be a common law employee for purposes of unemployment, workers compensation, Title VII, taxes, or other American rights, like the right to unionize. There’s a form SS-8 from the IRS for determining worker status. There are also DOL complaints. Of course, any one reporter could be singled out and retaliated against, so the key would be for a group of reporters from a similar geographic area / regional office to file, make the case that they are common law employees, and then get a petition going to start a union, preferably with the help of a lawyer.
This kind of organization isn’t easy, but it seems necessary. We face a de facto silencing as the multimillion dollar corporations continue broadcasting digital court reporter jobs and minimizing our online presence with articles about our “impossible” shortage.
Just some of the things reporters could collectively bargain for are the right to refuse jobs, the right to work from home, equipment reimbursement, support contract reimbursement, higher pay or page rates, stenography training funds for digitals, staffing ratios of stenographers to digitals, paid association dues for court reporters, severance pay, paid leave, or even some retraining money in the event there is a major technological breakthrough that makes us redundant, which is unlikely. If the big box claims it can’t pay, it may have to open its books to the union.
There are good arguments for court reporters being misclassified under the law. Top of the list is that these businesses couldn’t exist without their independent contractors. Our businesses are not independent of theirs, our business is their business. Where there are ABC laws in place, the independent contractor is (A), free from direction and control in performing the work. A lot of us really aren’t. We’re forced to use a certain layout. Many of us aren’t allowed to subcontract jobs. The agency picks what they want to offer us. We don’t meet their terms, we don’t get the work. (B), the work takes place outside the usual business of the company and off the site of the business. I would love for these companies to defend themselves by saying court reporting businesses are not in the business of court reporting. (C), the worker customarily is engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession, or business. This is where a lot of us are true independent contractors who have business with multiple firms or even lawyer clients. But for those that are working with the same company for years, as I did with Magna, there’s a real argument that they’re not engaged in independent anything.
In New York this is even muddier. The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, looked at who controlled the customer and assignments in the Postmates decision. Some of the things looked at there? Postmates (1), determined which couriers had access to which assignment. Sound familiar? (2), set the delivery fee charged to customers. In New York, at least, the agencies definitely decide the fees. (3), paid couriers a non-negotiable percentage of the delivery fee. Some agencies allow negotiation and some set rates. Some do both. (4), took on the risk of loss by paying couriers for deliveries regardless of whether the customer paid. Again, something that happens routinely in our business. (5), paid a portion of the couriers’ business expenses through prepaid debit cards. (6), did not permit customers to select specific couriers for deliveries on its platform. Lawyers can request us, but only if they know about us. We are effectively “hidden.” Even then, the agency decides whether or not to send us. (7), tracked the courier’s location and provided customers with estimated delivery times on its platform. Agencies occasionally attempt to put out rules like arriving 30 minutes early and so on. (8), assumed responsibility for replacing couriers who became unavailable after accepting a delivery. Agencies do this. (9), handled customer complaints and in some cases retained liability to customers for incorrect or damaged deliveries. One agency in New York has actually had reporters handle customer complaints after the Postmates decision according to a freelancer source, so there may be a shift here, but prior to the Postmates decision agencies generally handled customer complaints. As you can see, those of us with independent business or work from multiple sources may not qualify, but there’s ground to argue.
As individuals, we hold an advantage over organizations. We can make decisions and enact change much faster. Other court reporters have prodded at the issue, and it was enough to prompt talk of settlement.
We have a fairly predictable ethos in court reporting of clinging to our freelance title. That title actively robs us of our right to speak to each other on the issues that matter. It steals away the rights that most court reporters would have if properly classified under law that you just read with your own eyes and/or screen readers. Agencies understand court reporter culture and our lean towards tradition. They not only know the game, but how we react to the game. Who would continue to play a game knowing that it is rigged? If your opponent had a copy of all the moves you were going to make in a chess game, would you keep following the script? Stenographers should lead the movement and we have the best shot at altering the script. If digitals beat us to it, it’ll probably be the other way with contracts favorable to expanding digital.
It’s a question of whether we fight back in the name of ethics, accuracy, and the future careers of the students we’re training today, or whether we lay down and let private equity eat the industry ecosystem for the benefit of its bank account. The heart of what I’m doing is educating working people that things aren’t always as they’re said to be.
I find it funny that digital court reporting proponents like Veritext have antitrust concerns while they work together to lead the organization that was publishing fraudulent / misleading statistics apparently meant to manipulate a market.
A few thousand dollars and we shifted the narrative from impossible shortage to scumbag corporations tricking honest people. If you think I’m wrong on this, just look at my long history of running the corporations ragged with a minuscule fraction of the resources they have. They understand us? I understand them. And reporters talking about this post is their worst nightmare.