- Rev.com uses contract labor for its audio and video captioning and transcription services. The company recently faced backlash on Twitter after a contractor revealed the site cut base pay from $0.45 to $0.30 per minute of audio.
- Contract transcriptionists say issues with Rev go beyond the recent pay cut.
- Fifteen current and former Rev contractors spoke with Business Insider and said the company does not put trigger warnings before sensitive audio on sex and child abuse — and that the service’s quick turnaround leads contractors to lose sleep to finish projects.
- Rev.com has raised $5 million from investors including Capital Factory and Globespan Capital Partners and counts journalists, students, and other professionals as clients.
- The treatment of contract workers for tech companies has gained an additional level of urgency after reports of Facebook contract workers’ exposure to traumatic content.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
For a Rev contractor from Ireland, the opportunity to transcribe clear audio was a rare one. When she finally found a quality file, she soon realized it was an interview with a child sex-crime victim.
“It was incredibly tough to transcribe but the audio was clear so I wanted to keep it, because clear audio is so rare in Rev,” the contractor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, told Business Insider.
Rev.com launched its transcription service in 2011 as a platform connecting workers and clients, which includes professionals, students, and journalists, including those at Business Insider. The site promises a 12-hour turnaround for $1 per minute of good-quality audio. In 2018 PC Magazine named it the fastest and most accurate transcription service.
Rev raised a $4.5 million Series A round of funding in 2012 at a $15 million valuation from investors including Capital Factory and Globespan Capital Partners, according to Pitchbook, and now has 140 employees in-house. As a value-proposition statement reads on Crunchbase, “Rev combines human and artificial intelligence to deliver the largest and most popular voice-to-text service in the world.”
The human intelligence in that claim comes in the form of the transcriptionists, all of whom are contract labor, just like Uber drivers and Facebook content moderators. The Irish contractor for example said she joined the platform because she needed extra money to pay for her rent and public transportation. She’d heard about Rev on Reddit in 2017.
A recent Twitter thread about a pay cut at Rev, which brought base pay for contractors down to $0.30 per minute of audio, sparked outrage. Rev later responded to the thread by stating it did cut pay by 33% for the easiest jobs, but raised prices for harder jobs.
Yet freelancers say pay is one of several grievances they have with the company.
Business Insider spoke with 15 current and former contractors for Rev to discuss their experiences working for the site. Many spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing work or facing legal action. Business Insider confirmed their identities.
They described a situation where, to carry out the quick turnarounds, contractors on Rev face cutthroat competition for good-quality audio and lose sleep to make the tight deadlines. They highlighted a strictly enforced “grace period” of one hour to pass on projects. With so many contractors competing for high-quality audio, they say there are really only seconds to decide which assignments to take.
In addition, some of Rev’s independent contractors said they felt that the company had exploited their work only to give them pay lower than what the company advertised. Contractors said that Rev lacked transparency about pay cuts and the company’s customer service did little to help their situation.
The contractor from Ireland said for all the labor — emotional and physical — that she put into transcribing the interview about the child sex crime she got paid $0.48 US per minute of audio. On top of that, she did not see any trigger warning or label before the sensitive content.
“I had lost my hour grace period to reject the job by the time I’d reached the sensitive content, so if I’d sent the job back I’d be at risk of losing my job with Rev,” she said.
One other contractor said she, too, had to transcribe sensitive sexual content without warning. It’s not clear how the audio came to be on the platform.
Business Insider asked Rev a number of questions about the claims in this article. The company responded by sending a blog post and a hour-long video with Rev’s CEO published on November 18. The post and video do not address all the issues discussed in this article.
(Editor’s note: Insider Inc. has a newsroom-wide partnership with Rev.com. Reporters are instructed to use the automated transcription service, which uses artificial intelligence to transcribe files. Reporters are instructed not to use the regular transcription service, which uses the contract labor discussed in this article.)
How Rev’s gig platform disrupted the transcription industry
Jason Chicola, Rev’s founder and CEO, launched the transcription service in 2011 under the name FoxTranscribe. The company publicly rebranded as Rev.com and focused the company mission on using technology to transcribe audio files as fast and accurate as possible. It also offers translation and video-captioning services.
The workflow is straightforward: Once a client submits a file to Rev, the audio or video file gets sent to the contractor network to be claimed. Contractors choose which files they want, and they are required to complete projects on deadlines determined by file length.
During the rebrand, Chicola said Rev was meant to act as a middleman between a client and a transcriptionist. Rev would help manage freelance workers, ensuring they produced high-quality transcriptions.
“On most sites that are out there, workers spend half their time or more looking for work — that’s time they’re not getting paid,” he told TechCrunch in 2013. “We designed our whole system to keep them busy. If we can keep them higher utilized, they can make more money per week than somewhere else.”
For running the service, Rev took a cut of the freelance workers’ pay. Several former transcriptionists with whom Business Insider spoke said the “industry standard” for private transcriptions was $1 per minute of audio. Study Hall, a media-support network, has a list of private transcriptionists who work for that $1 baseline.
Professional medical transcriptionists can make as much as $16 an hour for working with that industry’s jargon. But many Rev contractors described having to transcribe medical and legal recordings for much less than that rate. Lilia Dronyayeva, a former Rev contract worker from Texas, said she once had to capture graduate lectures for a pharmacy college that required hours of research on how to spell drug names correctly.
The gig paid $0.45 per minute for the two-hour lecture; she estimates she invested up to 20 hours in that transcription with the research she put in.
“It’s so difficult to put in so much work and see so little outcome,” Dronyayeva told Business Insider. “You have to be so well versed in such a broad variety of subjects — you have to be able to memorize hundreds of things. It’s a hard job.”
Contract workers describe working long hours for increasingly little pay
On its site, Rev offers freelance transcriptionists and captioners the opportunity to work “as much or as little” as they want. Transcriptionists would get $0.24 to $0.90 per minute and captioners $0.45 to $0.75.
Chicola told TechCrunch in 2013 that transcriptionists made between $200 and $1,000 a month. Two former Rev transcriptionists said worker pay had been cut multiple times since then. While cutting pay for contractors, Rev did not raise prices over $1 per minute for clients.
Transcriptionists described taking home far less money than advertised, primarily because of the effort to research complicated topics so that transcriptions came out accurate. Andrew, a former contractor from Nevada, said he put in 15 to 20 hours a week for $400 a month. Andrea K., a former contractor from Nebraska, said they would sometimes make as little as $0.20 a minute of audio.
One former contractor from the Northeast, who worked for Rev from 2013 to 2016, said when she first joined the company the jobs had started at about $0.50 a minute and pay would increase the longer the file sat without anyone claiming it. People would not claim the more-difficult-to-work-with recordings, like those with background noise or people talking over each other.
When the contractor started working in 2013, she said pay would increase the longer projects remained unclaimed until they got capped at $1 per minute. A 2015 email from Rev reviewed by Business Insider confirmed that the company used to increase pay on unclaimed files.
Two years later, however, the user noticed they lowered the cap to $0.90. In 2016 she said pay stopped rising if the file hadn’t been claimed. That meant that the harder files people avoided paid the same as the easy ones.
“In conditions of scarce work, they’d slash the pay because they knew we had fewer choices of jobs,” the user told Business Insider. “It was pure exploitation because they no longer factored the time and effort required into the pay.”
In a blog post, Chicola said hourly earnings had increased by 20% over the past three years.
Another contractor, from New York, who started in 2013 said she enjoyed the work when she started, making about $10 an hour for working 30 to 35 hours a week. Yet in 2016 she said Rev cut the pay from $0.60 cents to $0.45. This month, the base pay was cut again, to $0.30, according to the Twitter user @thricedotted.
One contractor ended up writing an open letter to Chicola on a forum, public to all contractors, detailing low morale among senior transcriptionists because of the 2016 pay cuts. In an exchange seen by Business Insider, Chicola responded by saying some Rev contractors might “feel lousy” in the short term as the company releases better products.
“We make business decisions about what prices and pay rates should be,” Chicola wrote in the exchange. “I’m sure some of you may spit up your coffee when you read this. Maybe you think we don’t care. I can’t blame you for the thought.”
New members suffer the most
The 2016 policy change meant that the more-difficult-to-transcribe files paid the same as the easier ones, and as a result many newcomers were stuck taking the harder projects.
The contractors we spoke with described a system where those with greater seniority got first dibs at the audio files, and the more skilled you are the more you get paid. That meant people starting out got the lowest-paying and most challenging files.
Timothy Newton Allen, a former Rev member from Michigan, said he joined Rev earlier this year to help make ends meet. He was living check to check from his full-time job and wanted a side hustle for extra cash. Rev was his first transcription gig.
During his training session, Newton Allen said that Rev had implied files would be somewhere between easy and intermediate in their level of difficulty. In reality, he said, he struggled hearing conversations because of loud background noises or people talking over each other. He said he’d spend 14 minutes on a one-minute file.
“I would check job after job after job to see what the audio was like, and it was nothing as clear or easy to understand as what they had offered in the training courses,” he said.
Similarly, Matthew, a former Rev contractor from Canada, needed extra money and worked for Rev for just a few months. Yet he found himself making just $4 to $5 an hour because of the poor quality of the jobs he received. He said expecting Rev to turn files around in 12 hours without rejecting bad audio was a “ridiculous” business model.
“It’s not worth the time that it takes to take away with my family,” Matthew said. “It barely pays for the internet usage.”
Quick turnaround times left contractors sleepless and stressed
Rev’s appeal to many clients, particularly journalists working on deadline, is its quick turnaround, or so claims a blog post on Rev.com titled “4 Reasons Journalists Should Use Professional Audio Transcription Services.”
The service offers a 12-hour turnaround with “99% accuracy” for quality audio files. Clients can also place rush orders, which offer higher rates for quick turnarounds, such as 2 hours for a 30-min file.
The quick deadlines took their toll on the contract workforce transcribing files.
One contractor, from South Carolina, said she is a mom to several children with special needs. She worked for Rev consistently for six to eight months to earn extra income. During her time at Rev, the contractor said she felt stressed out constantly. She recalled yelling at her husband and kids as a result of the stress from having to finish her files on time.
The contractor said she got $200 to $300 for 25-30 hours worth of work a week.
“It was enough to help us when we were in a bad place, but it was awful,” the contractor said. “My hands hurt all the time. The audio is so bad.”
In a company letter to contractors sent on November 14, following negative publicity, Chicola said Rev would add a “need more time” button to extend deadlines up to 2 hours. A transcriptionist would be able to use the button for 1 out of every 10 audio files signed on for.
The grading system was high stakes, and confusing
Many contractors told Business Insider that even if they reached seniority, they still feared they could get kicked off the site anytime because of the subjective and nontransparent grading system.
The website has little information about how a transcriptionist becomes a grader. One contractor, from South Carolina, said Rev asked her to be a grader during her time at the company in 2017 and 2018 because of her high accuracy and speed scores.
She said she received a style handbook and was instructed to follow it as closely as possible, but, she added, many graders had idiosyncratic understandings of the style guide.
Annie Pedrino, a former Rev video captioner from Kansas, said she found questionable objections that graders made in her transcripts, such as docking her for word choice when describing music. She attempted to appeal these mistakes on projects that took her two to six hours to complete. Appeals took a week to come back, and by that time her project had been sent back and she did not get paid for her work.
Elijah Wheaton, a former Rev contractor from Georgia, said he got booted from the site after he scored “1,” the lowest grade on a 5-point scale, for making one formatting mistake in a song lyric. Before that, Wheaton had top scores in the three categories (accuracy, formatting, and lining up captions to the video image). His average dipped from a 4.7 to a 4.4 — below the “target” score of 4.5 — but he figured he could quickly raise the score again.
Wheaton attempted to file a dispute, but disputes take 48 hours to clear up.
When he logged on to Rev a day after the negative grade, he said his account had been removed. Wheaton said he was unable to reapply for his job.
“I really wish there was at least someone there listening to the disputes, someone watching the graders, because the graders really have all the power in that situation, and it was unchecked,” Wheaton told Business Insider.
Val B., a former Rev contract worker from Oregon in her 50s, had decades of experience transcribing before taking a job at Rev.
She spent about six months on the service before they closed her account because of low grades. She later created a new account with a different email address and noticed her grader was much harsher than before.
While she received high scores on her first account, her second grader gave her low marks and made dismissive comments. For someone who spent years working in the transcription industry before Rev and worked on complicated legal documents, Val said the graders on Rev made her feel like a failure.
“They treat you as if you don’t know what you’re doing and basically like you’re an idiot,” she said. “And they’re going to pay you accordingly.”
In the November 14 letter sent to contractors, Chicola said Rev’s grading system was “flawed” and inconsistent. He said the company would be instating a policy that makes it harder to be removed from the site because of a few bad grades.
You don’t get paid for time spent looking for files or the work you put in trying to meet a deadline, even if you have an emergency
Sloan, a contractor from Canada, told Business Insider the competition to get clear audio files is so cutthroat that contractors get seconds to decide whether they want the file before someone else takes it.
She actively worked with the company for a year and got only seven jobs with clear audio.
Because of the lack of clear audio, Andrea K., the contractor from Nebraska, said much of their time spent on Rev was sifting through poor audio files to find ones they could work on. They would listen to dozens of audio files for half an hour, all without getting paid, before finding one they could use.
Rev contractors also were not paid for work they did on a file before missing the deadline, no matter how close they got to finishing their transcriptions.
The South Carolina mom recalled a time when her child had to go to the emergency room while she was in the middle of a job. She said she had finished 45 minutes of a 50-minute file before taking him into the hospital, and by the time she got back her work was gone.
“I worked for probably five hours and got nothing,” she said. “I do really good work, but sometimes I’ve got kids in the hospital, or I’m sick, or my back hurts — lots of things come up every day and there was no care about that.”
Andrea, who no longer works for Rev regularly but still has an open account, said the company’s November 14 letter did not address their concerns regarding low pay.
“It didn’t really address the worker concerns — it was just covering their a– as a company,” they told Business Insider. “It doesn’t seem like a company that cares about their workers in any way.”
Rev does not place warning labels on sensitive content
None of the contractors interviewed for this story recalled seeing a warning label for sensitive content — such as those relating to sex abuse or child abuse — before accepting audio files. The Rev contractor from South Carolina said she had come across a legal case involving a child, a case that had upset her, but she did not see a warning label and it was too late to give up the file by the time she started on it.
And like the contractor from Ireland, she also found out she had to transcribe a sexual assault case before there was time to unclaim the audio file without being penalized.
“There were two files, and the other was involving some sort of sexual-assault recollections, which wasn’t too upsetting for me, but I was, like, ‘Damn — this could really make some people struggle because my husband has PTSD,'” the Rev contractor told Business Insider.
A Rev spokesperson did not answer when asked whether the company screens audio before accepting it to the site. Rev did not respond to questions regarding whether it put a trigger warning before sensitive content, and no contractor Business Insider spoke with could remember seeing any warning labels.
Many contractors said that Rev helped them supplement income and they enjoyed the flexibility to work from home. Still, they wished the company was more transparent with the freelance workforce. In his live video, Chicola said he wished he had done more discussions with contractors back in the “happier” days.
“There are so many people who work there who really can’t do much else,” the contractor from New York told Business Insider. “They’re handicapped, they’re old like me, and they don’t want to go be a greeter at Walmart. It was a really good opportunity for those unable to work outside the home, but Rev just kept abusing and slashing until it had not become a viable job for anybody.”
If you contract for Rev, email firstname.lastname@example.org.