Beware Commercial Leasing Agreements for Equipment

Commercial leasing, by itself, is not a scam. The idea behind commercial equipment leasing is that you are leasing or renting computer or electronic equipment from a company for a specified time. Some agreements then contain provisions for you to buy the equipment or return it to the company you are leasing from. That said, contract law is pretty serious in the United States and you will generally be expected to abide by the terms of the contract that you sign with a provider or seller if a matter goes to court. This means you have to be absolutely sure you want to be a part of the agreement you’re signing.

Why beware? A few simple reasons:

  1. Complexity. The likelihood that you need a company to help you pick out equipment is low, and the cost of computer equipment for court reporting is low enough that you can probably figure out a way to buy the equipment outright or cheaper using revolving or personal credit. It does not make sense to have a complex contractual agreement for equipment unless there is something generous you are getting from the contract such as generous tech support provisions, replacement parts, or free repairs/replacements. If you can walk into a store and get it, caveat emptor. If you are entering an agreement for someone else to get it for you, be just as careful.
  2. Third-party bait and switch. Some sellers will say they are helping you pick out the right equipment for you. This can be very tempting because not everyone in our field is comfortable buying computers without advice. So you could be talking to your software manufacturer, who refers you to their “computer specialists,” who are actually a third-party commercial leasing company. So one minute you’re talking about buying a computer, the next minute you’re signing a commercial leasing agreement, and if you’re not careful, your signature could end up on an agreement that you don’t fully understand. This is totally legitimate, legal business, but it could cost a reporter a lot of money unnecessarily.
  3. Predatory practices. Beyond the third-party bait and switch, there are general equipment leasing “tricks” that can end up costing consumers. Evergreen clauses are one example of this, where the buyer has the option to buy the equipment, but the seller is allowed to extend the agreement if the buyer does not notify them of their intent to buy the equipment. There are also instances where sellers attempt to alter the text of the contract just before it is signed. If you see a company employing predatory practices or attempting to confuse you, it may be a good idea to avoid doing business with them altogether.

Protect yourself and your wallet. Always make sure you read, understand, and retain a copy of what you sign or agree to. If you are having trouble understanding the terms of a contract, it may pay to have a lawyer review the contract with you, because monthly payments, fees, or penalties in an agreement can quickly snowball to be several times the cost of the computer equipment you’re leasing — and it’s mostly legal.

Workers Rights

Here on Stenonymous we have explored many different things related to freelancing and stenographic employment. As a quick recap for those that have trouble navigating the site, we’ve discussed turnaround times and how they have gone from 30 days to 5 with no extra money involved. We’ve discussed the Beginner’s Trap and freelance loyalty, which is all about how you must be loyal to yourself to earn a better income. We’ve brought out the need to build skills that make you marketable. We have admitted the power of a contract and thought about what should go into a rate sheet. We’ve gotten into billing, anticontracting, form SS8, and what it means to be an independent contractor. We have explained why we can’t discuss rates, and then we have discussed rates. We even put out other people’s rates.

Now it’s time for something a little different. I would like people to seriously consider a dilemma the field finds itself in. As independent contractors, we are consistently in a bind of being afraid to discuss rates thanks to antitrust concerns. This fear is probably at times a little overblown, but it causes us to be silent and to act very content even when things are not going well. Indeed, our biggest organizations, our NCRAs and NYSCRAs are trapped in the position of being unable to serve as forums for rate discussions due to liability concerns. All this is happening while some of our biggest purchasers are making a push from stenographic reporting to digital recording. I think it is time to ask ourselves what we actually get out of the independent contractor label. It’s out there that employers can save up to 30 percent by labeling employees as independent contractors. It’s out there that about 20 percent of employees are misclassified. Succinctly, the gig economy is bad for workers. Employers are doing their best to eliminate the cost of workers compensation and unemployment. These are serious benefits, worth thousands of dollars, that independent contractors do not get. Independent contractors have little to no federal protection from otherwise illegal discrimination and need to go to small claims instead of Department of Labor if we go unpaid. Employees are also entitled to FMLA leave, and in New York, family leave laws. Employees have the right to unionize and the employer is forced to enter good-faith negotiation with the employee union. Under today’s law in New York, the only way to take any of these benefits, if you are a commission employee misclassified as an independent contractor, is to dispute the issue on a case-by-case basis. How many people have the guts to do that?

We’re not even getting the benefits of being independent contractors, which would be the write-offs, the ability to hire other workers, and the ability to set our own hours. Think about it. How many of us in the freelance sector print our own transcripts or have consistent business write-offs? Yes, it is nice to write-off the occasional mailing fee, but the agencies have largely taken up any function that gets a write-off except for your starting equipment fee. Ironically, I have more write-offs as an employee with the state, thanks to my 1099 income, than I ever did as a freelancer. The ability to hire other workers? Go ahead and try sending someone who isn’t you to a deposition. See how many times you can do that before they stop sending you work. When I call my plumber, I don’t get to choose who he or she sends. Setting your own hours? Don’t know about everyone else, but I know that I got deposition forms that said please arrive early and gave me a start time. My hours were more or less set by the work, which really isn’t that much different from your boss telling you I need you at 10 tomorrow. We live in America, and people are entitled to refuse work any day they feel like, it’s not something we need the mantle of independent contractor for.

From New York to California independent contractors are beginning to challenge their status or realize the raw deal. California came out with a simplified three-part test for independent contractors. Maybe we should have a serious discussion about whether the title is worth keeping for most of us. Maybe we should talk about new laws and enforcement for independent contractors in New York.

It’s absolutely ludicrous to me that we box ourselves into a position where “freelancers” who are meted work, have deadlines dictated to them, are told when to arrive, what to bring, and disciplined via withholding work when deadlines are slipped, defend this model. The numbers don’t lie. Turnaround times are six times faster. Rates haven’t risen with inflation. Independent contractors save employers 30 percent. What could you do with a 30 percent raise? Hell, what could you do with a 10 percent raise? I mean, I have to go back to the article where I calculated out 1000 different rates. If you’re the breadwinner, unless you’re making at least $5.50 a page average, you’re working nights and weekends to make ends meet. The pricing structure doesn’t even need to change. The only thing that would have to change is agencies would have to pay minimum wage if your page rate didn’t give you at least minimum wage. Guess what? That’ll basically never happen. Imagine a world where you go take a deposition for an hour and only make 20 pages. Now imagine you transcribe for one hour. Your page rate is $3.25. $65 for two hours. Not a great rate but realistically what my generation was lowballed with. Way above minimum wage. We’re specialized workers, we deserve it.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that in this market and under these circumstances the losers are the independent contractors. There are no substantial gains to being independent contractors, and anyone with private clients could just continue their private clients as a separate business entity. My opinion is malleable and I’m open to debate, but beyond the shallow arguments of we have always been independent contractors and we buy our own equipment, I’ve heard precious little that impresses me. You know who else buys their own equipment? Teachers.

Maybe it’s time for a swap. Maybe it’s time for our trade organizations to shift to labor unions. At the very least, it’s time to talk about these issues in public and consider what can be better.

EDIT. On February 11, 2019, I discovered this JCR article which appears to have a different viewpoint than my own but also talks about the issue. I feel it is important, when possible, to give as much information as possible, so please feel free to review that and join the discussion.

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.

Veritext Buys A Diamond

In a perhaps not-so-surprising move Veritext bought Diamond. I wish every reporter a great deal of luck and success, but I do want to talk a little bit about why I think this is overall bad for us.

Corporations are entities made to create a profit for their owners. That’s their legal and primary purpose. There’s nothing really wrong with this, it’s kind of how things work. When you buy a stock in a public corporation, generally you can rest assured that the Board of Directors has a duty to protect the value of your shares. Yay.

But this poses a unique problem for reporters. Their duty is to their bottom line. What’s one of the biggest expenses? Labor. What’s labor in reporting? Our fees! So ultimately, Veritext, which I now nickname Gobbler Corporation, has bought its way into having what I imagine to be a pretty hefty book of business. This is bad for the following reasons:

If the reporter shortage continues, they have an incentive to push audio recording. It is cheaper and it will always be cheaper to get someone to take notes during a proceeding while it’s being recorded than hiring a stenographic reporter. This savings isn’t likely to be transferred to the lawyers and litigants, but added to Veritext’s bottom line.

If the shortage does not continue, Veritext has a larger market share of New York and will have a better ability to dictate prices to its reporters.

Honest solutions? We need to be better on our information game. We need to keep instructing reporters on what we are worth and encourage them to be powerful entrepreneurs. I’ve written before in this blog about how people can negotiate or seek information on government contracts. Perhaps soon I can write about becoming an NYC Vendor. Now is the time! More than that: We need to start fighting harder. As they start shifting to recorders, resist. Call up your favorite law firm and offer your services. Become the competition. Make them buy you out too. Reach out to law firms and tell them, hey, they’re cutting us out, and they’re not passing those savings to you, so hire a stenographic reporter today for a better deal!

This is the best damn time to be a reporter that I’ve seen in New York. The court system wants you. The unions want you. The association wants you. The agencies want you. Your skills are in real demand. But your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and really connect with customers, clients, lawyers, and the end users of our services really can alter how everything plays out. What you do actually makes a difference. Why? Strategy. Envision the whole thing as a game of chess. In Chess, if you refuse to move, you concede the game. Most of us are not wealthy, can’t concede and stop working. If you let the other player take all your pieces off the board, the sources you rely on for work, pulling off a win grows ever more challenging. If you start making moves, you force the opponent to react. Their game gets thrown because they can’t account for every move you make. Every dollar an entity gets is a dollar that makes them stronger. What do you think happens if the hundreds of stenographers in the city start taking dollars away by being real competition?

And we’re bothering people that want stenography to fail big time. The fact that we’re catching on and creating a plan to fight back is hurting them so bad that they’re gloating at me in anonymous e-mails about how our days are numbered.

So the choice is simple. Concede and let the current shotcallers decide how things are going to go, or step it up and take the time to read about how to draft responses to city RFPs (requests for proposals) and become true entrepreneurs, and introduce true competition to a needy, living market. Remember that a market is not just “oh, they want to pay me this”, but an amalgam of buyers and sellers, all seeking the best deal for themselves. Remember that as a provider you are the backbone of the market, and it’s your action or inaction that dictates tomorrow.

Veritext bought a Diamond. There’s no reason we can’t build ten more.

The Unsubtle Policy of Open Gates

I’m an introvert at heart. That’s going to surprise a lot of people because I’m also the guy who’s always engaging on Facebook, the union, or whatever forum seems appropriate at the time.

I ignore my impulses to shut up. And I do that mostly because I’m convinced it’s what we should all do. I’d like to add to a movement where when a job comes out on the federal judiciary jobs page, or the state court’s page, or the city’s DCAS page, or the page of any of the five district attorneys in this city (New York, Special Narcotics, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx), or anywhere at all, we all talk about it. I’d love for that movement to spread to every state and every place there’s jobs. I’ll focus on New York because I live here. I’ve seen some other great New Yorkers take up the idea and spread jobs on their pages. I’ve seen great people from other states do this same thing.

There’s a value, whether monetarily or as a boost to one’s rep/ego, to being the go-to person who people look to for advice. It feels much more rewarding to keep things personal and have people write in to get knowledge. But I’ve weighed the value of knowledge in my mind, and I really do feel like it’s more valuable when it’s accessible. The value of knowledge shared is greater than the value of good feelings.

So what I’ll ask of anyone who feels the same, set aside one morning a month to do a quick look around the common job spots of your state and let people know what’s available. Together we can create a kind of herd immunity where no one is left out of the job search or the quest for their dream job.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Inspired today to write a little about the pitfalls of poor practice habits. It is no secret that it takes practice, and a lot of it, to become a stenographer. Dedication, time management, and perseverance when faced with crushing failure or frustration are all things that come to mind when we think about practice. 
But we who have done it can tell you that practice does not make perfect. Others have tried to describe this truth by saying perfect practice makes perfect. The concept is simple: When you have set a goal, ensure you are doing the things that lead to that goal. Analyze and know yourself, your habits, and decide what must be worked on the most. 

Imagine that you are a beginning student whose goal is to hit various combinations of keys quicker and more accurately. In such a case, finger drills may be an appropriate use of your time because they are allowing you to familiarize yourself with the keys and combinations, and be more effective at hitting strokes on your early test. Now imagine you are a court reporter applying for a position in a court where there is a high volume of cases and the judges talk very fast. Finger drills are less helpful in such an instance because you do not need to be better at your stroke combinations, you need more speed and endurance. Only fast takes for moderate lengths of time can really help. Finally, imagine you are looking to be a captioner. Writing ultra fast or writing for long periods of time may be helpful, but ultimately it may be that your goal is to hear the words, take down the words, and have them come out on screen perfectly. For such practice, the answer may not be speed takes, but literally listening to the television, taking it down, and building your dictionary word by word.

Then there is another important factor for all of us to consider. Even if you have come up with a great method of practice: Despite some similarities,!our brains are all very different, and we all have different learning styles. Though court reporting/stenography clearly favors auditory and tactile learners over visual ones, you should consider what learning style you truly are and how you might work that into your practice. Are you a visual learner? Flash cards might be your thing. Are you an auditory learner? Listening to dictations over and over might be your path to victory. Are you a tactile learner? Maybe you just need to spend more time stroking the keys, with or without dictation, to get your fingers to glide without hesitation from one word to the next during the actual job or test.

This is all to say: Practice will not make you a great writer. You must know yourself. You must be willing to look at what everybody else does, incorporate what works for you, and discard all else. We have seen brilliant writers come out who focused primarily on finger drills, and we have seen writers just as brilliant that despised finger drills and never ever practiced one if they had a choice. You must be willing to learn who you are and how your mind makes connections. We can only urge each other and ourselves to choose a goal, and work backwards from that goal to figure out how to get there. If you want to make good transcripts, your writing is not required to be 100% accurate but you will need to practice transcribing time. If you want to caption for a large national event, you will need to be pretty close to 100% accurate and will need to focus on practice that forces you to stroke things out and build your dictionary.

There is a place for every dedicated reporter in the Reliable But Unremarkable Stenographic Legion. Practice won’t make you perfect, but with the right practice, you will achieve your goals and find success in this field.