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Transcribers: Are You Paying Them Poverty Wages? And Does it Matter?

By: Art Morgan
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I first wrote about the topic of closed captioning costs and pricing over three years ago.  Most of what I wrote then still holds true today, but since the topic has come up in several conversations over the past few months, I decided it’s time for an update.

Minimum Wage, Poverty Wage, and Living Wage

According to Dr. Amy Glasmeier, creator of the Living Wage Calculator, many employers see paying staff a living wage as a moral issue. In the U.S., the federal government defines the poverty threshold — the amount of income required to pay for a basic food budget, along with housing, clothing, and other basic needs.  Minimum wage is set by the federal government and by state and local jurisdictions at levels that are intended to keep families and individuals from falling below the poverty threshold.  However, the poverty threshold doesn’t take into account costs such as childcare and healthcare, nor does it consider variations in the cost of living from location to location.

Take my home town of Fort Collins, Colorado as an example. According to the Living Wage Calculator, single adult with no children in Fort Collins would need to earn $5.00 per hour to stay above the poverty threshold.  The minimum wage in Fort Collins is $8.31, so a single person with no children who is making minimum wage and working full time would stay above the poverty level.  However, to pay for healthcare and other costs considered part of a living wage, that individual would need to make $11.65 per hour.  And if that person is married and has just one child, the amount needed to make a living wage jumps to at least $14.10 per hour — even if both parents are working full-time.

Wages for Transcribers

Transcribers who work as freelancers are often paid a flat fee based on the number of minutes of content that they transcribe.  For example, a discount captioning vendor that charges $1.00 per minute for captioning might pay their transcribers and captioners $0.40 for each minute of content transcribed. Initially many people naïvely assume that a transcriber could accurately produce a verbatim transcript in realtime; in other words, they assume that a transcriber who gets $0.40 per minute of content is earning a respectable $24 per hour ($0.40 x 60).  However, the reality is that it takes a trained transcriber 5 -10x the duration of the video to accurately transcribe a video.  The range depends on the difficulty of the content; a video with a single speaker talking about a non-technical subject takes less time. A video with more than one speaker, or with technical, scientific, or academic content, will skew toward the higher end of the range to transcribe accurately. If we take a median efficiency rate of 7x, we can now see that the transcriber who is getting paid $0.40 per minute of content is actually earning $3.43 per hour (($0.40 x 60) / 7). That’s well below poverty wages if you live in the U.S., no matter where you live and even if you are single with no children.

Does it Matter?

A closer analysis reveals that how much you pay your transcribers matters quite a lot, as it can have a direct impact on the quality of your captions and descriptions. When purchasing captioning and description services it’s important to consider the subject matter of the video content and then assess how a company’s practices will affect your results. Especially for higher education institutions, the accuracy of your captions and descriptions is crucial. Students, faculty, and staff will need access to the material, and providing accurate results will ensure that your content is accessible and compliant with federal guidelines. Organizations that use crowd-sourcing, speech recognition, and inexpensive offshore labor may find that the quality of their captions and descriptions falls short. In developing countries with a low cost of living, $3.43 per hour can be an attractive wage and captioning vendors may be able to find some transcribers with good enough English skills that they can do a decent job with relatively simple content.  But technical content, cultural references, and accents that are unfamiliar to English speakers in developing countries can all cause quality to plummet if you choose to go with a captioning company that pays transcribers less than $4.00 per hour.

Artificial Intelligence to the Rescue?

Increased automation through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) holds great promise in many fields.  It’s already had a big impact on captioning by automating many of the more tedious and time-consuming tasks required to create captioned video. Fifteen years ago, when AST was first getting started, the cost of captioning was 5 – 10x what is is today. So AI, broadly speaking, is helping bring down the cost of captioning.

However, to get your captions to the gold standard level of equally effective communication, you need to include human intelligence.  And for complex content you need not just any humans — you need humans with subject matter expertise and experience with the accents used in your videos. If a captioning company offers AI-enhanced captioning at prices that seem too good to be true, they may simply be masking the fact that they are using offshore labor, rather than skilled labor at a fair wage. If a captioning company claims that most of their transcribers are based in the U.S. (or the broader term North America), ask them what percentage of the work is performed in the U.S., and whether they can provide an auditable guarantee that your work is performed in the U.S. (AST can provide such a guarantee, if you want it).

Here’s an example of the statistical sleight-of-hand that can be performed with a statement like “most of our freelancers are based in North America.” A portion of those freelancers may be based in Mexico or developing countries in the Caribbean, which technically are part of North America.  Another large portion could be people who are based in the U.S., but they tried just one or two captioning projects, realized they were making less than a living wage, and never did any work for the company again after that. In this scenario the company could have a large percentage of people in their pool of freelancers who are based in North America, but they could be doing a very small percentage of the transcription performed by that company.

We understand that the cost of captioning and audio description services can be significant, especially if your organization is using video extensively. But if you want to provide truly accessible video (meaning you are providing equally effective communication), you need to decide whether captioning is the right place to be cutting corners.