NCI v CWA Op-Ed Series
This is the second of a six-part series of articles (click for direct link to Part 1).
It’s the story of my yearlong experience as an employee of the National Captioning Institute (NCI), a live television caption provider. During that challenging year (which started in October of 2015), I participated in the attempts of some of my fellow NCI workers’ to bring in a union called the Communications Workers of America (CWA). This led to NCI dismissing me from my job for what CWA claimed was an unlawful reason, which then led to a court hearing in front of a federal judge where I was represented by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer.
What was at stake?
A judgment in our favor meant that NCI had unlawfully fired me because of my union involvement and I’d get my job back plus a public apology plus any back pay I was owed.
A judgment against us meant it was okay that NCI fired me because I was indeed a egregiously disloyal worker who didn’t deserve to keep his job.
Only time (a whole lot of time) would tell.
Part 2: Learning the job but training is interrupted
Management tells all NCI employees that the first part of voice writer training, passing the IOA test, should take no longer than three months to complete. Since my training class started in October, that would give us through the end of December to finish.
Unfortunately, by the end of November we found out that wasn’t going to happen for us.
Normally my class would have also had all of December to continue practicing our voice-echoing and to finish preparing ourselves to be tested to graduate to the IOA level. But in my case our training class had an extremely hard deadline because of the new stations being added on January 1.
Our supervisor and her boss made the decision at the beginning of December to essentially stop the live voice-echoing training we’d been doing for the last two months and instead switch us over to learning an easier captioning technique they figured we could learn in time for our deadline. Called punch-back, it was a far easier method of doing the voice-writing job, but it only works for stations who share their teleprompter scripts.
Here’s how punch-back works.
It so happened that in the new January rollout we were facing, all of those stations used a central database where they stored and shared their upcoming teleprompter scripts.
They would upload them sometime before the telecast and we voice writers had access to them.
When we’d first get a script file, it wasn’t very usable or reliable for a lot of reasons – there were punctuation and formatting errors, they used abbreviations and included notes to the news anchors and there were always missing stories and typos to deal with.
Before we could start to punch-back these files, they had to be cleaned up and formatted.
All of December, my training class began spending the majority of our shifts learning how to grab and edit these files to where they were usable as captions for the punch-back process.
What we were now trained to do was to download the scripts to our studio computer and edit them quickly but effectively using Microsoft Word and specifically designed macros and our own English and editing skills. We then learned how to re-upload the file to our caption delivering software.
That was the ‘hard’ part, but after a while, it became more time consuming than difficult.
The easy part came soon afterwards during the live news telecast. Instead of having to listen to and repeat every word said for a straight hour, the voice writer just punches back the edited script by pushing the same button over and over in time with the spoken words and it comes up on the screen as perfect captions.
They do have to listen and voice-echo any words and news stories that are added or were different from the script file, but that’s relatively easy compared to echoing the entire hour-long broadcast nonstop and almost error-free.
Which is what the IOA test has you do, so unfortunately those quick moments of voice-echoing that occur during punch-back happen too erratically to fully train you to pass the IOA test.
Punch-back is time consuming to set up but very easy to do, whereas voice-echoing for an hour straight is difficult to set up but even more difficult to do, especially being 97% accurate.
Put it this way – if the job had been to make music instead of captions, voice-echoing a newscast would be like having to play all the instruments of a Bach orchestral arrangement by yourself, whereas doing punch-back would be more like having to drag in a huge piano on your own but only having to sit there and play chopsticks.
And when you’re moving pianos and playing chopsticks all day, you gradually lose your ability to orchestrate the Bach.
NO TIME TO VOICE-ECHO TRAIN
After the big January 1st roll-out, we three who were still being paid as trainees found ourselves added to the NCI work schedule doing billable punch back work so our live echoing skills understandably began to atrophy.
Meantime, we were told to practice voice-echoing at the end of our day.
With all the paperwork and an almost full workload, though, we found that having the energy to load up an old show to practice ‘live’ echoing for the last half hour of the nine-hour workday wasn’t a productive way to learn such a difficult skill.
Solo orchestrating the Bach takes more time to practice than that.
Especially to get to the 80% inclusion, 97% accuracy level that was required to pass.
Yet we still did it, every day.
And that was despite nobody in upper management appreciating what a difficult training situation the three of us had ended up in.
We knew that if we’d been given December, that last month (one third) of our voice-echo training like we were supposed to, there’s no doubt that we would have passed our IOA tests in the normal amount of time.
Instead, here we were in February still doing these loaded punch-back schedules and getting very limited practice voice-echoing full newscasts.
The result – total frustration and sub-par voice-echoing skills for all three of us.
At that point, trying to pass the IOA test like that would have been near impossible, so the tests kept getting pushed further and further back for us. And that meant that we continued to be at the lowest pay scale while maintaining a full workload.
Definitely not what we’d been told when we were hired.
I began to ask my supervisor when I was going to be given enough time to prepare for my IOA test so I could make the next level of pay that represented the billable work I was doing and that I had originally been promised.
She said she’d do her best to schedule us some voice-echoing practice time (and she did) but it was never enough.
In the meantime, our punch-back workload just kept getting heavier.
AND THAT’S WHEN I SNAPPED
Then sometime in February during yet another busy shift of captioning too many fully billable shows for trainee pay, I’d had enough.
I asked one of our schedulers if the customers realized that they were paying for professional captioners but getting trainees instead.
First thing next morning I got an in-studio call from my boss’s boss, which never happens.
She told me in no uncertain terms that training was over and I needed to start making money for the company. I asked if it seemed fair that I was doing billable work but only receiving trainee pay.
She told me I could solve my own problem by passing the IOA test.
So I asked her if it seemed fair to be expected to pass such a difficult test and achieve high-level scores doing a skill that I didn’t get to completely learn and don’t get to practice all that much anymore.
She said that it was not her problem and that passing the test was up to me now.
And then she told me that what they were doing to the customers by using trainees was considered perfectly acceptable and that I should keep my opinion about the subject to myself. That’s how it’s done at NCI, she said, and if I didn’t like it, she reminded me that I could always choose to leave.
Her reaction to my concerns was very disappointing.
After that I began to pay attention to some of the other workers’ complaints.
People who had been at NCI a long time were grumbling about their workload increasing while their already low pay stayed the same.
They talked about the mandatory overtime that remote workers were required to take.
They talked about how the maximum number of hours a voice writer should be on air has been steadily increasing without any associated increase in pay or concern about vocal strain or mental stress.
They talked about how difficult it was to get time off because first you had to find someone to replace your entire schedule and if nobody felt like helping you out then your vacation plans are screwed.
They talked about not getting the proper lunchtime in their schedule or the proper breaks between shows to rest their voice and brains.
They talked about the times their doctor’s notes demanding rest breaks between shows were ignored by schedulers due to the demands of upper management.
They talked about a lack of any base pay increase over the years to match inflation or similar jobs in the industry.
They talked about not making enough money to be able to afford the health insurance that the company provided.
And then one day they started talking about a union.
ENTER THE UNION
One of the workers had been in touch with someone from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union and a phone meeting with one of their representatives was set up. The plan suggested to us by the rep was to use an office speakerphone and have everyone meet to talk privately to the union rep.
Little did I know that a meeting that was fully intended to make our jobs better would be the beginning of the end of my NCI employment.
NEXT: Part 3 – Bringing in the union but losing the job
The CWA union gets involved in our struggle and I make the ‘big mistake’ for which NCI eventually fires me.