Videographers. Graphic designers. Photographers. Musicians. These are some of the highly skilled professionals representing over 15 million workers who contribute more than $135 billion to the cities they live in. If that group is widened, you get roughly 57 million people contributing an estimated $1 trillion to the United States economy.
And what do all these people have in common? They are the independent contractors, freelancers, solopreneurs, and consultants who make up one of the fastest-growing subsets of the American workforce. And despite outdated government studies to the contrary, they are the future of work.
While their numbers are vast and their needs are many, independent workers have been historically overlooked by policymakers in the U.S., with increasingly grave consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the livelihood of nearly every worker in America in some way. There is a bit of hope given that the $2 trillion government stimulus package, as it stands today, includes freelancers and gig economy workers. It’s the first time in history they could be eligible for unemployment benefits, which is monumental. That said, this shouldn’t just be a short-term fix. These changes must be built into a better safety net for the future.
The current economic and health crisis is particularly dangerous for independent workers because they lack traditional protections many workers enjoy, like healthcare and paid sick leave.
Aside from the tragic loss of life, COVID-19’s biggest victim may not be the stock market, but rather the U.S. healthcare system. Access to affordable healthcare is among the biggest issues for freelancers in the United States, and it’s an issue that transcends political party lines, and although there is a lot of debate on the need for improvement, freelancers are often left out of the conversation. With an increase in cases of COVID-19 comes an increased reliance on public medical resources, which will impede our ability to treat the chronically ill and will ultimately cost billions of dollars.
Similarly, the social safety net that exists to keep individuals and families in their homes will likely be stretched to the breaking point. Many big cities are already dealing with a homelessness crisis and will not have the necessary resources to accommodate rapidly increasing demand. A short-term investment that puts cash in the hands of workers will prevent a long-term reliance on public assistance.
Some might argue that many freelancers already work remotely and will therefore not have their businesses disrupted by the crisis. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s true that certain types of freelancers work remotely (i.e. digital freelancers whose work is platform-based) and don’t require the same sort of in-person interactions that others do, their clients and customers are still cutting back on expenses and putting projects on hold. And don’t forget the musicians, photographers, drivers, makeup artists, and hairstylists whose jobs are almost always face-to-face and who rely on populated cities and brick-and-mortar businesses to earn their living. They’re nervous and scared, and they have every right to be.
A recent survey conducted by Freelancers Union showed that over 72% of respondents expect to lose revenue over the coming weeks as coronavirus continues to spread. This is unprecedented and it is unfathomable that our government has yet to announce any kind of relief for this group of people. This is why Freelancers Union, with the support of Fiverr, a global marketplace for freelancers, and others, are taking the first step by putting together a fund to support this group of workers. The goal is to raise enough money to offer financial assistance of up to $1,000 to as many freelancers possible to cover lost income and essential expenses not covered by government relief programs. Any freelancer who is experiencing sudden hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether as a result of illness, lost work, or caregiving responsibilities, is eligible to apply for aid through the Fund.
In addition to the fund, Freelancers Union is strongly urging elected Federal officials to put forward a comprehensive financial aid package plan that includes relief for independent workers. They can start by instituting grants and zero-interest business loans for freelancers to pay immediate debt—a move that the Washington, D.C., city council and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, have already taken on behalf of eligible small businesses. This will get cash in the hands of freelancers and gig workers quickly, with minimal risk.
Emergency unemployment insurance must also be expanded to include workers not traditionally covered, which is what the Senate has put forth in the stimulus package, and self-employment taxes must be waived to support freelancers on the back end when the storm has blown over.
Not supporting this rapidly growing workforce during this global crisis would be a huge misstep that can have a long-term negative impact on the economy and our country’s largest cities.
With crisis comes opportunity. We will rebound from these dark days, but now is the time to modernize our government’s policies to support the millions of independent workers that represent the future of work in our country, and quite frankly the world, and will continue to for years to come.
Brent Messenger is the vice president of Public Policy and Community Engagement at Fiverr and Rafael Espinal is the executive director of the Freelancer’s Union.