The Ultimate Guide To Officialship (NY)

This one is for the people whose dream job is officialship or becoming an official court reporter. Just to get some quick links out of the way, there are two major Facebook discussion boards that I’m aware of. There’s the Officialship Job Board and the NCRA Officials group. I’m going to talk primarily about New York State Unified Court System officialship here, so if you’re looking for federal employment, please check out and bookmark the federal judicary jobs page. You’ll likely need your RPR for federal employment. As a matter of fact, if you’re looking for employment in New York City generally, you should check out one of my very first posts, Get A Real Job. Just keep in mind that if your dream job is Southern District NY, you’re going to need Eclipse last time I checked.

I’ll be writing most of this from memory, so feel free to correct me if I am factually wrong anywhere. This is not, in any way, a “guide” that is endorsed or published by the New York State Unified Court System (NYSUCS). I am not writing as an employee of NYSUCS. This is me as an individual just retelling my hiring experience in “guide format.” If you get a job with NYSUCS, you listen to your boss or your union over anything you might read or interpret here. If you’re looking for official information about NYSUCS, you should go to the site and ask that question through official channels.

The Tests, Classifications, and Eligible Lists:

Before we go anywhere, let’s just address how you get a court job. There are rarely per diem assignments available. These are court reporters that are hired and paid per day to come in and take the record. Per diems are rarely sought as of writing. Then there are what we refer to as provisional postings and then there are permanent positions. Provisional postings go up whenever there is a spot that needs to be filled and can be found by going to NY courts current opportunities. You can also search for “NY courts careers.” Civil service examinations are posted at “NY courts exams.” Reporters that apply for a provisional position usually must pass an in-house test. The court system may waive the provisional test for NYSCRA or NCRA certified court reporters. Reporters looking for a permanent appointment must pass the civil service test. That test is never waived. By law, civil service tests must be given every one to four years. Provisional employees can be considered temporary in your mind. If a civil service test is given and a provisional employee does not pass it, they may be let go. Provisional appointment should not be underestimated though, since an employee begins to accrue vacation time, sick time, time in the title for raises, and pension time. Many reporters begin their career by obtaining provisional employment and then passing the civil service exam to become permanent employees.

There is a separate civil service test for court reporters and senior court reporters, but they are substantially similar. “The test” consists of a multiple choice written knowledge portion and a skills portion. The written knowledge portion focuses on grammar, spelling, and technical knowledge. The skills test consists of an opening statement, a jury charge, and a four-voice dictation. The dictation is in the ballpark of 200 WPM. Two of the skills tests are transcribed and one is read back from the court reporter’s notes into a tape recorder. The readback portion is only graded for accuracy and not for inflection. If a reporter misreads their notes and corrects that misreading, the error is not counted against them. There is a readback time limit. Generally, court reporters have been expected to bring their own printers, stenotypes, pencils, and other equipment to the testing site. There has been discussion within the system about the possibility of online testing, but no civil service test has been given in that manner as of today. There are two eligible lists created when the civil service examination is graded. One list is a promotional list and one list is an open-competitive list. The promotional list is for anyone that held a court title prior to taking the test. The open-competitive list is for people who are not in the system that take the test. Everyone on the promotional list is scored above everyone on the open-competitive list. For example, let’s say that Mary Sue is a freelancer and scores a 100 on the open-competitive list for the senior court reporter title. John Doe is a court reporter working for the New York State Unified Court System and scores a 96 on the promotional list for the senior court reporter title. John Doe will be considered for a position as a senior court reporter before Mary Sue. When someone accepts a job with the New York State Unified Court System, typically they complete one year of probation. It is easier for the employer to discharge an employee during probation. In addition to provisional and permanent appointments, there are also contingent permanent appointments. Succinctly, every employee in the court system is a “line.” Sometimes there are situations where someone permanent is sick, injured, or not present. Contingent permanent people fill their line until the permanent employee returns, if they return. The most important thing to remember about the civil service examination is that when it is posted there is an orientation guide and accompanying materials posted to the exams page. Test takers must read and follow the orientation guide. Failure to follow the guide can result in an applicant’s disqualification.

Once you’re on the list, you get a preference letter asking you what courts you’re willing to work in. When I got that letter, my brilliant plan was to say I was willing to work in any court and then turn down canvass letters as needed. If you turn down canvass letters, you must make sure that you respond to the canvass letters and remain active on the eligible list. If you get put on inactive status on an eligible list, you can get skipped over for future canvass letters. In summary, fully read every official material you receive.

The Titles and Courts:

With the hard part out of the way, let’s talk titles. there are two major titles in the New York State Unified Court System. There are court reporters and there are senior court reporters. Senior court reporters typically cover Supreme Court. Court reporters typically cover what we refer to colloquially as “lower courts.” In the “lower courts,” of New York City most courthouses are supervised by a court reporter in charge or “CRIC.” These CRICs coordinate with a supervising court reporter and/or chief clerk when necessary. I am informed that in many courthouses, the CRIC title is obsolete and has been replaced with “county supervising court reporter.” The county supervising court reporters report to a “citywide supervising court reporter.” In Supreme Court, the courthouses are overseen by principal court reporters. The principal court reporters coordinate with chief clerks when necessary. Court jobs are all ranked with a judicial grade (JG) number, and that number links to your pay. Court reporters are JG-24. Senior court reporters are JG-27. The Supreme Court of the State of New York is our state’s highest trial court. It deals with the adjudication of felony criminal cases and civil cases with damages over $25,000. Then there are the “lower” courts. In New York City, we have criminal courts that handle criminal arraignments, violations, and misdemeanors. We have civil courts that handle cases under $25,001 in damage. We have family courts where people can file petitions for family matters, including the issuance of orders of protection. A court structure chart is also available. Do not be fooled by the terminology “lower courts.” All of the matters where court reporters and senior court reporters are assigned are extremely important, as are both titles.

The Unions:

In New York City, if you work in the “lower courts,” or grand jury, you are represented in the Local 1070 union. If you work in the Supreme Court, you are represented by ASSCR. Local 1070 is comprised of a number of different titles. Every title has its own chapter leadership, and the chapter leadership works with the main leadership to solve problems. In Local 1070, the chapter leaders generally perform union steward duties when directed by the president or vice president, or whenever necessary. In ASSCR, there are the officers and the executive committee. The officers can be thought of as the decision-making body of the union and the ones who carry out any union-steward-type duties. The executive committee typically assists the officers by keeping apprised of union news. The way one runs for a union office is decided by the organization’s constitution and bylaws. For example, in ASSCR, a nominating committee is formed and nominates a slate. If someone that wants to run is not nominated by the nominating committee, then they have to follow the constitution and bylaws. Generally court reporters and senior court reporters that do not work in New York City are represented by CSEA, a massive conglomerate of titles, workers, and workplaces. My experience with and knowledge of CSEA is too limited to write about its organizational structure. The most important thing to understand about a union is that it negotiates your employment contract for you. If there is something you want in your workplace, you need to let union leadership know. Employment contracts cover a vast number of topics including vacation time, sick time, disciplinary procedures, grievance procedures, employee standards and employer obligations. Raises, increments, and longevity pay are all things that are addressed through your union as well. There are two more important things about union membership. First, your union has a duty to represent every member equally. Second, you generally cannot refuse lawful orders unless compliance would lead to imminent life-threatening danger. Insubordination can cause you disciplinary problems up to and including termination. If you are being questioned by a supervisor, you have Weingarten Rights. You have the right to have a union representative present if a conversation with your employer can adversely impact your employment or working conditions in any way. The employer usually has zero obligation to inform you of these rights, and you must assert them.

The Job:

A lot of stuff is on-the-job training. There are a lot of court-specific quirks that wouldn’t make sense to go into, such as night court and sealed criminal matters. Your first day on the job, you want to ask for common briefs and terms. In addition to our salary, when judges, lawyers, litigants, or members of the public ask for matters to be transcribed, we get transcript money as laid out in Part 108. Those terms, as far as I know, have been the same since 1999, so it’s a real lesson in the value of court reporters. A lot of transcription service firms jack up their rates every few years. By contrast, court reporters are consistent and reliable. We are responsible for maintaining equipment to take down our notes and produce and bind transcripts. We’re talking about a printer, ink, paper, computer, cables, stenotype, and transcript covers. Personally I am a big fan of pre-punched three-hole paper and A6 transcript covers. The drawback to using A6 covers is that you require different covers for differently-sized transcripts. Reporters that use standard transcript covers and separate fasteners do not have this problem.

There are a few things that are universally frowned on or just plain illegal. Stealing time? Bad. Stealing supplies? Bad. Being habitually late? Bad. Be on time and ready to work. Remember when switching over from freelance to employment that you have a boss now. If you have doubts about something, you should ask your boss for guidance. Coworkers can also be a big help. You’re an employee, and you are now covered by all of the employee rights laws, including the New York State Human Rights Law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII, Workers Compensation, and unemployment, et cetera. The most important thing about the job is not to take advice from some guy’s blog if it’s different from your court rules or boss’s instructions.

Interested in a career in the courts? Check out this NY Courts publication.

This concludes the “guide” portion of this post. If you’re interested in a really weird story about why I wrote this post, keep reading. If you don’t really care, feel free to stop reading.

The History of this Post:

Over the last few years I’ve had lots of people write me about various topics. Usually it’s well-meaning or polite people who have a grammar suggestion, topic suggestion, or information. I love those people. I even love the people who come on my blog and disagree with me. Separate from those people, starting maybe two or three years ago, someone sent me about 48 e-mails through an anonymous proxy. The e-mails were usually nonsensical, poorly written, or tried to turn me against other reporters. Sometimes they masqueraded as helpful advice or a hint at a story that didn’t exist. When the e-mail campaign failed to turn me against my best allies, this person began to infiltrate our Facebook groups under the fake name Jared Leno. Jared Leno proceeded to write rude comments to agencies that would come on our job boards to post jobs. At that point, I called him or her out on what they were doing and I alerted Facebook admins of groups where I was a member so that Jared could no longer use that fake identity to harass court reporters. Jared did what all bullies do when they lose, “he” whined and cried.

Jared/Anonymous then turned to Reddit. As some people know, we have the r/stenography subreddit, the r/courtreporting subreddit, and the r/courtreporters subreddit. The admins of r/stenography and r/courtreporting appear to be either absent or squatting, and at one point we had frequent posts from our Mystery Messenger (MM). One intrepid reporter started r/courtreporters so that we could have a space with an active admin, and we began to report the MM for harassment. “They” constantly create new accounts so that they can spread disinformation, avoid bans, and make comments about my blog. One of their favorite “jabs” is that I am an official and I write about freelance often. There are two main strategies when you’re dealing with trolls. The first is to ignore it. Sometimes this works. If someone is doing something to annoy you, and you don’t show that you’re annoyed, sometimes they go away. The problem we face here is that there are people that are going to Reddit to ask legitimate questions about our field. So if we just leave these boards a confusing, spammy mess, we’re going to leave the impression that this is a dead field or that we’re all lunatics spouting nonsensical drivel. Strategy two? Drown the spammy posts out with reality. So if you’re on Reddit, definitely subscribe to those channels. They’re a great way to get information out to the public. If you’re not on Reddit, it’s free, it’s generally anonymous, and it can be fun.

It’s been an interesting relationship. At first I believed that MM was a court reporter in pain. I tried many times to reach out and help. As time went on, I saw that it was much more likely to be someone who hates steno and someone whose IQ is high enough to use the internet but low enough that they have nothing better to do with their life than to get my blog clicks. Maybe it’s Steve Hubbard or Justin “Mr. Stenoless” Higgins. Who knows? All I know is MM is a great case study in being your own worst enemy. Their tirades have helped my blog grow its readership by almost 400% 2018 to 2019 and an additional 40% 2019 to 2020. Without MM’s unassailable genius I never could’ve come up with the work of art that is this blog post. If I could make one plea to MM, please do not find anything better to do with your time than follow me across the internet. Without your 1/31/21 post and unending struggle to get my attention, today would not have happened. Thank you for these wonderful years of service.

It was a tough decision on whether to publish this story. Some in my circle believe that talking about an anonymous “agitator” gives them more power. But perhaps knowing that this situation exists will help others identify MM by their inarticulate, artless writing as they continue to impersonate court reporters and spam court reporting groups. Perhaps others who have been e-mailed anonymously by this person will be able to identify that there is malicious intent there sooner than I was able to. I know at least one other person that received communications from MM. There’s bound to be more, right?

You literally asked for this. LOL. How about that?
Now all of this information will be easier for court reporters to find.

Can Freelancers Apply For Workers Compensation Benefits? (NY)

There are a lot of professionals in this field who will laugh at the notion that freelancers can be entitled to employee benefits. “Of course we’re not eligible for Workers Compensation! We’re independent contractors!” The idea does seem as preposterous and fanciful as a soul-devouring stenotype.

Souls purchased separately.

To give a brief overview, in New York, to avoid clogging the court system with employee accident cases, Workers Compensation coverage allows employees injured on the job to apply for benefits to cover their medical expenses and/or wages. To many, this would be where the discussion ends. If you’re not an employee, you can’t get benefits. But when we look into exactly what constitutes an employee, and the way this actually works, we find that the answer is more likely “it depends.” Administrative and judicial judges will look at several factors to determine whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor” under the law, and how the “hiring entity” and the “hired entity” classify the relationship is not a major factor listed on their website.

  1. The right to control. Does the hiring entity or employer control the manner in which the work is done? In stenographic freelance circles, and particularly in New York, this can be a mixed bag. They might ask you to use a specific layout, arrive at a specific time, or even bring snacks to a depo. There are varying degrees of control, and if your agency is exercising a lot of control over you, you just might be an employee.
Text from the WCB site.

2. Character of work. If the primary work performed by the hiring entity is performed by the hired entity, that means the hired entity is an employee. Again, this is something you can probably argue both ways in stenographic circles. You can easily make the claim that court reporting agencies are in the business of providing court reporting services and therefore we should be employees. You can also make the argument that court reporting corporations are not in the business of court reporting, but rather acquiring court reporting professionals for lawyers. Just to note, US Legal tried that in an Unfair Competition case in California during the Holly Moose case. It argued that it was not a shorthand reporting corporation. Justice Elia rejected that, stating “such circular reasoning reasoning to evade…” [this state’s laws] “…is, at a minimum, unpersuasive.” Who can say what a judge in New York might say when applying the facts of a case to New York law?

Text from the WCB site.

3. Method of payment. The important bit here is that whether you receive a 1099 or W2 does not matter in determining an employee/employer relationship. Whether you receive regular payments or whether you are paid for a task as a whole is a deciding factor. Again, it can easily be argued either way dependent on the facts of a freelancer’s “employment,” are they taking jobs regularly and getting regular payments? Are they hired for a one-off assignment?

Text from the WCB site.

4. Furnishing equipment. The vast majority of us maintain our own equipment, and if a workers comp claim were ever made against an agency, I imagine the first thing they would do is bring out that fact. But there are other things to consider. Does the agency supply you with business cards or other materials that you’re supposed to hand out? Some do, some don’t, and that makes this a factor worth considering.

Text from WCB.

5. Right to hire/fire. This relates to the right to hire and fire who’s doing the work. For example, when an agency contracts you, a true independent contractor would have full authority to contract that out to someone else. In my time freelancing, I saw worksheets that forbade such behavior. Ultimately, the right to hire and fire is dominated by the agencies, and this makes a good case, on this factor, for reporters as employees.

Text from WCB.

6. Postmates Decision. Court reporters were doing the gig economy before it was popular. Now many states are grappling with how to treat these cases where someone may be called an independent contractor but meets all the definitions of a common law employee. In New York, we had the Postmates decision. That looked at several of these factors including the character of the work, right to control, and the method of payment. Another thing looked at was who controlled the customer and whether the independent contractor was able to go out and build his own customer base. This is something that court reporters are split on. Many of us have our own clients and many of us work exclusively through agencies. The Postmates decision gives us a look at how administrative judges and appellate courts might look at these kinds of issues in New York. If you don’t have any control or interaction with the client beyond the work you’re doing, a court could look at that and say “employee.”

Taking in all the factors above, as intelligent people not trained in law, we can see how we might argue it both ways. We can see that it’s very clear that the law doesn’t care much how the employer and employee classify the relationship. We can see what’s happened in this state and other states, and we can come to an interesting conclusion. Can freelancers claim Workers Comp benefits? It depends. Can the claimant show that they meet the definitions of a common law employee? I can’t answer that for you. But I can say that if you’re someone who’s injured on the job and meets these eligibility factors, it may just be worth consulting an attorney to give you real advice on your specific situation and the facts of your specific case. Independent contractors, on the other hand, generally may, but are not required to, purchase Workers Compensation insurance. This can be done to guard against medical bills or fulfill the terms of a contract.

Finally, as someone who briefly owned a corporation, I can tell agency owners to make sure you have a rider or option on your Workers Compensation insurance that covers you if an independent contractor claims they’re an employee. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have a misclassified employee without coverage. It can constitute a crime to fail to follow our Workers Comp law. You can try searching other reporting firms and see what insurer they use. You can also engage with NYSIF to see if they offer a better rate than your current provider. Whatever you do, just be aware that this is a possibility, and the more your freelancers fit into those eligibility factors, the more this could end up a problem for you. I don’t want a problem for you. Chances are good an injured reporter doesn’t want a problem for you. But if somebody’s hurt, can’t work, and the medical bills are piling up, chances are good they’re going to take whatever avenue they’ve got to take to survive. The least we can do is keep this open for discussion.

NYSCRA Student Webinar May 2020

NYSCRA’s got an upcoming webinar that all students are encouraged to register for. RSVP is required for security. I’m going to be talking about everyone’s favorite topic, politics and legislation. My colleagues are going to be discussing important things like CAT software, words, CART v traditional freelance and deposition reporting, money, and associations. If you don’t believe me, check the flyer, it’s happening. As many who saw our last webinar will know, we go through our agenda  and then allow questions from the audience. Questions that we don’t readily have an answer for can be addressed as an addendum or in a supplemental followup.

As for general NYSCRA news, we always need students and mentors signing up for the mentorship program.  Everybody’s got value. Everybody’s got a superpower. So if you want to reach out to a board member and let them know yours, definitely do.  The bottom line is when there’s an event, or a workshop idea, or even just time to spotlight someone in our quarterly newsletter, The Transcript, outreach can make all the difference. Also, if you haven’t had a chance to renew this year, renewals are open and reporters can get a little more exposure via the Find A Reporter feature on the site.

There are a lot of great times ahead. For stenographers and students, this is or will be your association. Come join us on May 20th and let’s all keep 2020 going strong!

 

NYSCRA Certs Waive Provisional Assessment for NY Courts

NYSCRA President Nancy Silberger announced on December 13, 2018 that holders of the NYSCRA (New York State Court Reporters Association) certs ACR (Association Certified Reporter) and RCR (Realtime Certified Reporter) will be able to skip the provisional assessment for the state court test. This happened thanks to the work of Debra Levinson. I had written in the past about the value of associations, and today I can honestly say that the value of a NYSCRA membership has increased.

To put it in plain language: Every one to four years there is a civil service examination for the court reporter title and a statewide civil service examination for the senior court reporter title in New York State Unified Court System. Senior court reporters work in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, which is the “highest” trial court in the state. Court reporters work for the other “lower” trial courts, criminal, civil, or family courts. Passing the civil service examination is what gets you a permanent position with the New York State Unified Court System. Sometimes, and as a matter of fact right now, there are provisional postings for titles where people may apply for and take an assessment test to work provisionally in a title. Working provisionally allows people to begin accruing vacation time, sick time, comp time, and I believe it also leads to time in the title and pension. Basically if you are waiting for a permanent position to open up, the provisional posting is your way in. What NYSCRA has done is made it possible for you to get the provisional position in the court reporter title without the assessment test. You already passed a test, so why take it again? So if you can pass NYSCRA’s NYACR or NYRCR, you don’t have to pass the provisional examination to get a job with the NYSUCS right now. What’s better than that?Join NYSCRA. Propose great ideas like this one, and watch the association work to make NY reporting better year after year.

Public Records

Knowledge Can Be Power.

Agency owner talking about a sweet new deal they got with the City of New York? How exciting! But wouldn’t it help your negotiation position if you knew what they were pulling in on that contract? Yes! But how could you do that? Check it out: You can go to the Mayor’s Office of Contracts Public Access Center at 253 Broadway, on the 9th Floor, in New York, New York, and you can print out data on their contracts with the city. You’ll need the proper business name, which you may obtain from the New York Business database.  Once you get a printout of the general contract information, such as the city agency the company does business with and the amount of the contract/contract number, you can make a FOIL request to the city agency they do business with for a copy of the contract. Knowledge is power if you do something with it. Use information to negotiate for yourself, bid on contracts, or share it with others so that they might negotiate more effectively.

FOIL Requests.

FOIL requests are easy. You find the FOIL law that applies. If it’s a New York Executive Agency, it’s covered under the Executive Law. The State provides tons of free resources for learning about FOIL requests. If the agency you are looking to find information from is a court, then it is likely covered under the Judiciary Law.

Writing your request is even easier than reading the law. Locate the address of the FOIL officer of the agency you are seeking to find information from. Often this information is available online. For example, as of writing, the FOIL Officer of the New York City Law Department is Andrea Fastenberg, 100 Church Street, Room 6-244, New York, New York 10007; which is information easily accessible through the Law Department directory.

Now sit down to write your FOIL request. Simply write hello, my name is so and so, and under such and such section of law, I make the following Freedom of Information Law requests for the following records. You list the records you want information about. You should ask for a full copy the record or contract, and any and all documents/records related to that record or contract. You should name the record or contract, and describe it as fully as possible so that the agency can locate it for you. Ensure that the agency has good contact information for you, and offer to accept the information by e-mail, because it may reduce your FOIL request costs. Succinctly, the government is entitled to a small fee for production of records. Often, receiving the information by e-mail eliminates this cost.

If you are seeking information generally from a state or city agency, you may also consider adding a time period to your FOIL request. For example: I request a copy of any and all contracts for stenographic reporting services, court reporting services, recording services, or electronic recording services from January 1, 2016 to January 1, 2017. This will help the agency with your request, because then they would only be looking for records in that year, as opposed to records going back a decade or more.

Always be professional and polite. If you do not receive a response within a month, you should consider following up with another FOIL request!