Being self-employed has lots of appealing upsides like a casual wardrobe and flexible hours, but lack of paid leave is one huge downside. Few know that better than freelancers trying to engineer their own maternity leaves.
With steady pay a challenge for freelancers even during the best of times, maternity leaves are difficult to plan for because of the unpredictability and also length of time away. Doctor-mandated bedrest or an expected early delivery can sunder carefully laid plans, leaving new parents in a vulnerable spot financially. There’s also a fear that clients might find a permanent replacement for you while you’re away.
These are concerns for a growing number of U.S. workers. Freelancers are now a significant portion of the U.S. workforce. According to a survey by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, more than one-third of all U.S. workers, or almost 54 million Americans, did freelance work in the past year. More than 21 million are full-time freelancers, of which 53% are women. Freelancers also skew younger. According to the survey, 38% of millennials are freelancing, compared with 32% of those over 35.
Yet despite these demographic trends, the growing number of freelancers have no federal or state help to cushion their time away from work. In the U.S., paid maternity leave is up to the discretion of private companies. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only 12 workweeks of unpaid leave a year, and only applies to employees who have worked for at least 12 months for an employer with 50 or more employees.
Only in California do freelancers have the opportunity to opt into some family leave benefits, The state’s paid family leave insurance program allows workers who pay into the state’s disability insurance to get 55% of their pay for up to six weeks in order to care for a new baby. For freelancers elsewhere, there’s no such benefit, and it’s up to them to find their own way.
For most freelancers, planning a maternity leave means doing a lot of work ahead of time. Los Angeles-based writer and editor Jennifer Chen started lining up interviews for one client months in advance and wrote articles for another client, a magazine, four to five months ahead of time. Not only did this ensure that some paychecks would land while she was on leave, it saved her clients the trouble of finding someone to fill her shoes while she was away.
But juggling an extra workload while pregnant is far from ideal. Chen, who was pregnant with twins while doubling her workload, said it all seemed doable at first, but got harder as the pregnancy progressed. "I didn’t realize how tired I would be," she said.
It also helps to find help from other freelancers and suggest a plan when telling clients. Natalie Burg, an author and freelancer writer, said she approached clients about three months ahead of time with a plan on how to cover her work while she was away.
"For some, I was able to frontload work, but I offered to help find an interim for all of my gigs. No one took me up on it," she said.
While maternity leave could jeopardize job security, which is always a concern for freelancers, Rebecca Alwine, a freelance writer focusing on the military community, sees a positive side to being self-employed.
"One of my editors is also pregnant, and the others know I have a family, so I don't imagine it's a problem. I think, in a way, it’s easier as a freelancer, since they don’t own the majority of your time," she said.
Even with careful advance planning, it can be difficult to get maintain steady income while away, so it’s best to sock away a fund with three to six months salary to prepare.
Burg, who staggered her leave by client, said she forgot to factor in the lag time between announcing she was back to work, getting assignments, and actually getting paid.
"It was probably two months or more before I was actually fully back to steam," she said. Burg felt like she was doing well financially at first. Then there was a month or so when she was working, but paychecks and assignments were barely trickling in. "I don't regret at all the extra time with my daughter, but it was a surprise," she said.
In addition to banking work ahead of time, California-based Chen was able to take advantage of state benefits. She and her husband, also a writer, incorporated as a C-corp three years ago for tax purposes. As part of that process, she also started paying into the state’s disability insurance. That entitled her some income during maternity leave.
"It’s a great source of supplemental income while I’m on leave right now. I’m really grateful that I [incorporated and paid into state disability insurance], making it possible to get those benefits."
For a lot of freelancers, maternity leave exacerbates the lack of job security and steady income. Without any government assistance program, it helps a lot to build up a financial cushion or have a partner with a steady job.
Ellen Sheng is a writer who focuses on business and finance and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Barrons, and Forbes, among others. Formerly based in Hong Kong, she’s now back in New York and can be found on Twitter at @ellensheng.