New York’s Short(age) Squeeze

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.

Federation of Shorthand page rates 1989-1991

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.

This chart shows the starting rates for 1991 data adjusted for inflation each year.

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 chart shows the starting rates in 1999 adjusted for inflation each year.

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!

Statistic: Median inflation adjusted hourly earnings of wage and salary workers in the United States from 1979 to 2020 (in constant 2020 U.S. dollars) | Statista
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.

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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.

Addendum:

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.

Historic Rate Data: A First Look

Some time ago, an intrepid, benign reporter posted documents revealing historic rate data from the west coast. One document showed that in 1995, on PI cases, the rate was $2.81 per page. Also revealed from 1995, $3.60.  In 1998, a document showed $3.55. Almost a decade later, 2005, $3.55 a page. 2006, $3.65 a page. 2018, $3.80. Why is it important for us to learn about and publish historic rate data? Education. Every reporter is probably aware that it is now the tail end of 2019. Though I don’t have a fancy document to show it off, I can tell everyone that there are freelance reporters working for less than those 1995 rates today.

Why is this important? Inflation. Every year, the government prints more money and it enters circulation. Higher supply of money means lower value of every dollar that exists. Buying power decreases. You’ve seen this in action. Maybe your groceries seem a little bit more expensive as the years pass. Maybe a membership fee has increased. Prices can be impacted by all sorts of things. One factor is inflation.

As a matter of fact, if you use the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, it shows that that $2.81 PI page in 1995 had the buying power of 2019’s $4.69. What does this mean? Someone making $2.81 a page in 1995 was making the 2019 buying power of $4.69 a page. To have the same buying power and no raise, a 1995 reporter making $2.81 a page needs to be making $4.69 a page in 2019. As someone that was convinced to take my first jobs at $2.80 a page in 2010, I feel there is a great deal of value in investigating rates geographically and over time. If we do not mobilize and keep each other informed, we will continue to churn out students who know no better and accept deals that are largely skewed against them.

I am happy to take and report more historic rate data. If you choose to send me documents, anecdotal or memory-based rate data, or anything helpful in that regard, please take the time to tell me the location, rate, type of job or upcharge, and perhaps input on whether such rates are high, average, or low for your market.

ChristopherDay227@gmail.com

What Rate Should Freelance Reporters Charge?

This is an interesting question for stenographers across the country. What rate should be charged? What is fair? What is a good amount of money?

I have often simply left the answer at: It should be more. I have a body of work on this site that talks about negotiation, inflation, and makes several cases for higher rates for New York freelance. It bears repeating that in New York, the current private regular rate mandated to be charged by officials is about $4.30 per page. If you’re a freelancer paying your own taxes, advertising, business costs, benefits, or workers compensation insurance, then you should consider trying to make more than that by any means necessary, including realtime, rough, daily delivery, and copy sales. The skills you bring to the table are as important as your ability to negotiate and seek out work.

Without more fanfare, let’s turn to what I did tonight. I designed a very small calculator program that takes the user’s input of how much annual salary they want to make, and divides that by all the different rates someone might charge per page to figure out how many pages you need to make that annual salary. It then takes the pages and divides those pages by 20, assuming that’s how many pages a person transcribes an hour. Then it divides  those hours by 7 to tell you how many 7-hour workdays you need to make that money. To tailor this to yourself specifically, you can either edit the calculator, do the calculations manually, or simply half, double, or triple your transcription speed.

I understand that most people do not really do anything with computer code, so I ran the program for several different salary ranges.

These are the calculations if you want to make:

$25,000 a year.

$50,000 a year.

$75,000 a year.

$100,000 a year.

$125,000 a year.

$150,000 a year.

$175,000 a year.

$200,000 a year.

The moral of the story is obvious: The lower your rate is, the more pages you need to make money. The higher your rate is, the fewer pages you need to make money. But to see this in action, let’s just take one point of data: $5.00 per page.

At $5.00 per page, you need about 35 days worth of transcribing to make $25,000 a year.

That’s about 70 days to make $50,000 a year.

That’s 140 7-hour days of transcription to make $100,000 a year.

Anecdotally, if we spend an hour transcribing for every hour we are on the machine, that’s 280 7-hour days of work. There are only 260 weekdays a year. That means to make that $100,000 a year you’re giving up 10 weekends a year at $5.00 a page. Increase the rate to 5.50 and you’re giving up no weekends. 50 cents makes that much of a difference.

Bottom line? Your rate is going to dictate not only your income, but your quality of life. Strive to be a good reporter, know your market, team up with a mentor, and make sure you’re getting paid enough to reach your goals.