How Freelancers are Reshaping the Law Around the Country

By Colton Cox February 8th, 2019

Here’s a hard truth: The gig economy isn’t working for everybody. For many creative professionals, the year began with a scare: 2,000-plus jobs cut at outlets like VICE, BuzzFeed, and HuffPo. As more digital media talent is dumped from full-time work into the freelance marketplace, competition grows stiffer, and rates take a hit. Meanwhile freelancers continue to struggle to receive fair contracts with brands and publishers. And because they aren’t fully employed, traditional legal representation often isn’t on the table.

Thankfully, the discourse around these issues is growing louder. At the end of 2018, as part of the #MediaTransparency conversation many took to Twitter to publicly reveal (the often substandard) rates paid by major publishers and share their stories of round-the-clock work for hand-to-mouth pay.

As the conversations multiply on social channels and beyond, so do the legal and legislative initiatives aimed at solving these issues. Many still exist only in theory, but the voting power of freelancers—72% of whom indicated in a recent Upwork survey that they’d cross party lines for a candidate who advocated for independent contractors’ rights—could prove enough to turn them into reality.

Take California, for instance, where the California Labor Federation is urging independent contractors to work to protect the outcome of a recent state Supreme Court ruling: Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. Designed to reduce the frequency of employment misclassifications, the verdict replaces outdated and ambiguous criteria with a three-point test for companies to prove their contractors are not employees, and thus not eligible for guaranteed protections and benefits. The result will be two-fold for freelancers: making a pathway to employment for some, and limiting contract abuse for those remaining independent.

It’s a step towards much-needed oversight, but doesn’t solve for most of the underlying issues independent workers face in the marketplace, and potentially undercuts relationships they have with freelancing platforms. As California lawmakers look to protect these constituents, they can refer to leading examples across the nation.

Protection, Education, and Space in NYC

Most obvious is New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act, signed into law in 2017, which mandates that freelancers brought on for $800-plus worth of work be guaranteed a written contract, and thus a legal avenue for compensation if the client doesn’t pay in full per the agreement. Additionally, it provides financial remedies to freelancers as their disputes are processed through the Office of Labor Policy & Standards.

In much the same vein, the recently opened Freelancers Hub in Brooklyn provides co-working space, networking resources, and financial education for the city’s self-employed, with programming developed in partnership with the Freelancers Union.

These may not solve for all the long-term financial stresses of a self-employed New Yorker, but they do offer some ease for those who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. In fact, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act has been referenced by the UK-based “Freelancer Club” in their call for similar protections.

A More Inclusive Gig Economy in KC

New York isn’t the only city looking to accommodate its self-employed—Kansas City recently announced the launch of its Digital Workforce Development Initiative, a program aimed to provide independent workers with skills training and operational support. More than that, it aims to empower women and people of color to pursue opportunities through the local gig economy; Mayor Sly James used the launch of the initiative to encourage local startups to be more inclusive in their hiring practices.

It’s a step forward, but not a full solution, for issues of discrimination in the larger freelance community, where gig workers are unprotected from client biases and discrimination. Gaps in pay and opportunity that exist in the traditional workplace can be augmented for the self-employed, and responsibility largely falls on the individual worker to remain vigilant in their interactions with clients.

Companies like Dynamex that rely on large freelance workforces stand to gain from minimizing benefits to their gig workers, and in some cases, actively lobby elected officials to enact their interests. This is currently playing out in Texas, where the state’s Workforce Commission is finalizing a rule to give greater legal protections to employers against their independent contractors—including potential claims for unemployment insurance.

But alongside the interests of large corporations, lawmakers must also consider the 42 Million people who’ll be filling out a 1099 form this tax season. As more people enter the gig economy, politicians and legislators are faced with a voting group they can’t afford to alienate. How they’ll balance the needs of both groups will be partly the result of activist freelancers. We’ll be following closely.

We’d love to hear your stories of how you’re fighting for a fairer freelance world. Let us know on Twitter at @TheFreelancer.

Image via iStockPhoto

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