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Life of court reporters: high stress, meager pay

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By JAN GLIDEWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 4, 2001


To most people the plight of east Pasco's court reporters is a tiny blip on the radar screen of daily happenings.

"So what," a friend of mine is fond of saying (paraphrasing Drew Carey). "You hate your job. You hate your boss. There's a support group for you. It's called everybody. We meet at the bar."

And these court reporters don't necessarily hate their jobs or their bosses, but they are tired of being ignored by a county government that can drag its feet on paving streets in a poor neighborhood one day and consider a multimillion-dollar tennis facility the next.

They are justifiably fed up and contemplating what amounts to a strike in some areas of the court system, and a hard-nosed judge has dug her heels in on the other side of the issue.

I was once married to a court reporter and have some insight into what their lives are like.

Most of them aren't from the silver spoon class of society. My former wife, to whom I was married briefly in the mid 1970s, had worked her way through court reporting school by dancing topless and driving a wrecker. In fact, she was on a night wrecker call when she went into labor and gave birth to her son.

I came along later, but saw plenty of what it was about. She lived in a singlewide mobile home behind her parents' house in Citrus Park. She drove a 10-year-old Volkswagen back and forth to court and deposition and child care appointments. She had no hospitalization insurance. She had massive student and equipment purchase loans to pay off. She had to pay a typist (technological advances have eliminated that cost for most court reporters) and she had a large outlay for expensive preprinted stationery for transcripts.

In a day care situation that charged $1 per minute for late pickup, she was sometimes five hours late because a county judge would decide, without notice, to continue until 9 p.m. or later.

There were times when transcripts were needed on such a hurry-up basis that I can remember standing in her typist's home at 3 a.m. while the attorney who had ordered the transcript grabbed each page as it left the typewriter and was proofread by her.

I was impressed at first that she grossed almost twice as much money as I did; not as impressed that she netted far less.

During the 10 months we were married and I watched stress take its daily toll, I learned, among other things, that a very high percentage of court reporters have stress-induced spastic colons and other gastrointenstinal troubles. I never met one who didn't have a medicine cabinet, purse or briefcase full of antacids.

The job is extremely stressful. A missed word or number or punctuation mark can have drastic influences in a case. A court reporter is also a notary public who legally certifies that the record he or she produces is an accurate reflection of what was said.

They deal with people who speak too softly, people who insist on nodding instead of speaking out loud, people with accents so thick as to make their speech largely unintelligible and people, including a lot of lawyers, who speak so rapidly it is difficult to keep up.

They frequently spend their days overwhelmed with one account after another of depraved human behavior and are occasionally only a few feet from violent, even murderous, courtroom outbursts.

And they sometimes spend days waiting for paychecks that, they are assured and reassured, are "in the mail." That's one thing when you are reading a newspaper column, another entirely when you have a hungry kid who wonders why you are always exhausted and a refrigerator with nothing in it but condiments. Court reporters' incomes, because of procedural changes, have actually shrunk over the past 10 years. It's up to Pasco County to come up with enough money to make things right for the valuable elements of the court system, and it shouldn't take a strike to make that point.

But I have a feeling that if it does take that, then it will happen.

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