'There Is a Point Where a Person Can't Do Anymore'

Graphic: Rev

On Monday, we reported that dirt-cheap transcription service Rev was lowering the already precarious minimum pay for its independently contracted workforce by over 3o percent. The change wasn’t even announced in an email, according to multiple Rev workers.

It’s far from the only example of gig economy jobs that, feeling the pinch of an unworkable business model, first squeeze their workforces. It happened with Uber. It’s happening with Instacart and DoorDash. Now it’s happening at Rev. “There are many people who can’t hold other work because of disabilities or family obligations,” one reader wrote in an email to me today. “The pay has always been very low, but now it is much worse”

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While workers in a growing number of gig work jobs are organizing and fighting back against unilateral changes to their livelihoods, Rev transcriptionists happen to be highly literate and attentive to detail—such that the vast majority of reader feedback we received from individuals claiming to work on the platform were close analyses of the company’s own statements. One such veteran Revver, who confirmed their identity with Gizmodo but asked not to be identified publicly for fear of reprisal, responded with a fully-formed dissection of both the pay change announcement as well as a spokesperson’s response to our original report. (Disclosure: Gizmodo’s video team has used Rev for video transcriptions.)

The Rev contractor describes a “morally and ethically unacceptable” tiered system of contract work designed to exploit an atomized workforce, one that allegedly has already reduced pay for its workforce in the past and appears destined to do so again in the future. Attempts to organize via company forums are actively being quashed, according to this transcriptionist, and this recent round of pay cuts has, by their estimate, slashed hourly pay to less than $5 per hour.

A Revver wrote the following words, with full knowledge that publishing this information could result in job loss or other negative consequences; another Revver helped to edit it, knowing the same. And two people honestly discussing the realities of their workplace is the first step any of organizing effort.

We’ve reached out to Rev for comment on the specific allegations made in the letter below. We will update with the company’s response when we hear back.

I am writing this anonymously because I fear reprisals from the company I am a transcriptionist for. I have already been subjected to arbitrary silencing on our internal forum for speaking my mind, although I did not violate forum guidelines. Therefore I feel the only way to communicate this information is on an anonymous basis. I want to be clear about who I am. I am not a disgruntled former employee or a person who has only worked at Rev for a short time. I am a long-time [worker] with excellent feedback on my work from both the company and customers for over many years.

This is in regard to your article, Transcription Platform Rev Slashes Minimum Pay for Workers, which appeared in Giz on November 11, 2019. The company replied to this article and frankly were less than truthful in their response. I feel a responsibility to clarify. The truth needs to be told.

Why are workers upset at Rev slashing its base pay for transcriptionists to 30 cents per minute (cpm)?

1. This is the second major reduction in pay to ICs in three years.

Most companies either maintain rates or at least increase pay commensurate with inflation. Rev takes the opposite approach. 45 cpm was already an extremely low rate. Many people struggle to survive on this pay, but for various reasons do not have many other alternatives. Many Rev workers are disabled in ways that make it very difficult for them to access more traditional workplaces to earn a living.

Let me give you a little background on the transcription industry in today’s market. The industry standard for transcription is that it takes four minutes to transcribe a minute of audio. This can be much higher depending on the difficulty of audio and the amount of research involved in a transcript. But even at a 4:1 rate, a 15-minute file would take an hour to transcribe, and at 45 cpm would pay $6.75 pre-tax and with absolutely no benefits. Now slash that pay to 30 cpm. That same 15-minute job will still take an hour to transcribe and now pay $4.50. Again, this is pre-tax and with no benefits.

We need to add to this analysis the time it takes initially to find a doable job among hundreds of files with terrible audio. It also doesn’t include time starting a file, only to find that it’s too difficult for the given pay, and throwing it back into the queue with no compensation for work done. It doesn’t include site crashes and editor malfunctions, which may cause a transcriptionist to lose their work, for their transcript to not save properly, or for it to not submit properly, all of which carry penalties aside from no pay. When taken into consideration, a person’s base pay drops even further.

Remember that for legal purposes, Rev classifies its workers as independent contractors. Therefore, Rev pays for no health insurance, no workers’ comp, no retirement funds, and most importantly, does not pay half of US workers’ FICA tax. Transcriptionists for Rev must pay 15% Medicare tax for retirement, while employees only pay 7.5% FICA tax and their employer pays the other 7.5%.

2. “Before this, most jobs started at roughly the same price regardless of difficulty, and were able to increase over time.”

While in theory this is true, in practice, it is not. Often, difficult jobs are on the job queue for days, and Rev refuses to raise their rate to one that is worth the time it would take to do those jobs. For instance, this morning there was a job that had been on the queue for over 110 hours and was priced at 52 cpm. Not only do prices not increase as difficult jobs sit on the queue, but if jobs are scarce and a lot of people are trying to claim them, the prices can drop drastically. Jobs drop from 90 cpm to 50 cpm in the blink of an eye. That means that people can claim a job at one price only to find that in the time it was being claimed, the price has dropped drastically. Sometimes, they don’t notice the change until the job is complete and the pay is less than was expected. The 30 cpm drop went into effect on November 8. As of today, November 11, we have seen no change in the price increase structure over all.

3. “For this round of pricing changes, 30 cpm will be the starting price for a very small number of jobs. On the other hand, some jobs will start at 80 cpm, and these jobs will be able to increase in price from there.”

This statement is laughable at best. Rev created a new tier of pricing. It starts at 30 cpm instead of 45 cpm. Almost all files that were formerly 45 cpm were dropped to the 30 cpm tier. Most of the files that were formerly 50 cpm dropped to the 45 cpm tier and so on. This results in doing more difficult files for the price of what were easier files a few days ago. As of today, November 11, I have not seen a single file start at 80 cpm. In fact, any files on the queue that are above 80 cpm are between 48 and 248 hours old. Why are these jobs on the queue so long? Because they are unworkable. No one will do them.

So Rev claims that it’s raising prices on more difficult jobs from the start. This is not true. They can point to the jobs on the queue that are priced between 80 cpm and a dollar per min and say that they have raised rates but in reality, those are the jobs that no one will do no matter how high the rates are. Rev knows this. So most jobs have dropped in cpm, while rates on a few jobs that few can or will do have been raised. It looks good on paper; however, realistically, this is a massive pay cut all the way around.

4. “The goal is not to take pay away from Revvers but to pay more fairly for the level of skill required.”

Obviously, people are going to claim the cleanest files that can be done the fastest, even if they are not paying quite as high a rate. Two 15-min jobs done at a 4:1 ratio that pay 45 cpm add up to $6.75/hr for two hours, $13.50 total, while two 15-min jobs done at a 6:1 ratio that pay .50 cpm add up to $5.00/hr for three hours, $15.00 total. How many people would choose to make $5/hr over $6.75/hr? Not only that, harder jobs are more mentally and physically tiring, requiring more breaks and burning people out sooner. They also often require intensive research. A person may have the skill to do the more difficult job, but they will still make less money per hour doing it. How is it “fair” to pay someone less because they have more skills? Again, this is a patently dishonest statement.

5. This drop in base pay was also presented to the Rev forum community as a way to make it easier for Rookies to get started at Rev.

This hasn’t been talked about much, but the new base rate for Rookies starting to work for Rev has dropped from 38 cpm to 20 cpm. This is hardly a benefit to Rookies. Again, it is an obvious pay cut.

6. “If previously you’re someone that seeks out the easiest projects with the lowest cpm, it’s unlikely that you’ll earn the same as you have previously.”

Finally, an honest statement. Those who do the highest volume of work for Rev fall into this category. Many who completely support their families transcribing for Rev fall into this category. As independent contractors, people are supposed to do the work that is most profitable for them. Referring back to point 4, that would be the easiest projects with the lowest cpm for the most part. We are in the business of making a living and supporting our families. We are not in the business of giving Rev more time and effort for less compensation. The only thing we get from working for Rev is our pay. We get absolutely no other benefits.

7. “We informed our community of these changes on our central online communications hub in advance of them going into effect on Friday, 11/8.”

This reduction in pay was instituted with virtually no, or very little notice to its contractors, and not appropriately so. Only a fraction of the Rev’s contractors participate in Rev’s voluntary forum. The vast majority of contractors do not participate in the forum, and many don’t even know of its existence. Anyone who is banned from the forum cannot see forum posts at all. This is where the new pricing structure was unveiled. Therefore, most contractors would not have received any forewarning of this price restructure until they actually claimed a job and noticed it.

Notification of this pay revision should have been done formally by email notification. Rev routinely communicates with their contractors by email on other matters. They have every contractor’s email address. There is only one reason they didn’t do it: lack of transparency. When you make $300/week to support your family, and it is slashed by a third with no notice, that’s a $100 drop in pay. There was no warning for most people, even though those on the forum who knew about the change asked Rev repeatedly to send out emails.

Rev seems to think that people can just work harder or longer, but there is a point where a person can’t do anymore. Rev went through this same scenario in 2016 when they did away with some tasks that paid extra, no longer rounded all minutes up, and dropped their base price from 50 cpm to 48 cpm and then shortly later to 45 cpm. People protested then, too, but were told by CEO Jason Chicola that the price changes were here to stay and that if people didn’t like it, they could leave. People tried to boycott the low-paying jobs, but Rev mass hired new people who would do the work. Again, people are boycotting low-paying jobs, this time by leaving unclaim comments urging people not to do those jobs. They have been threatened with losing forum privileges if they continue to leave these comments. Many fear losing their jobs if they continue to speak out.

Mr. Chicola was able to drop the pay in 2016. Perhaps he can do it again. But the businesses that use this company’s services need to be informed and understand that their transcripts are produced by an underpaid, exploited workforce. Even if it’s not illegal for an employer to set its contractor’s wages far below the national minimum standards, it’s certainly morally and ethically unacceptable.

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Update 11/13/19 7:34pm ET: A Rev spokesperson did not specifically dispute several characterizations made by our source, and provided the following statement: 

We want to be clear: Rev does not profit in any way by this payment adjustment. We make no more money than before.

As many in our community have pointed out, not all audio files are created equal. Some are far harder than others to transcribe. We strive to make our platform as equitable as possible, and our new pricing model attempts to level out payment to pay more for harder files and less for easier files. We continue to fine tune our approach and welcome feedback.

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About the author

Bryan Menegus

Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bgmwrites@gmail.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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