As coronavirus all but halts economic activity and U.S. jobless claims top 10 million in two weeks, one group of workers is finding themselves in particularly dire straits: American freelancers.
A recent survey of more than 5,000 independent workers by Freelancers Union found that a full three-quarters had lost contracts or gigs due to the virus. Still more—a staggering 90 percent—are expecting losses in the weeks and months ahead.
The toll for freelancers, who make up a third of the U.S. workforce but operate with virtually no safety net, could be devastating. When traditional employees lose their jobs, they are often eligible for unemployment benefits from state governments. But freelancers, who don’t fit neatly into conventional definitions of “employed” or “unemployed,” typically aren’t eligible. As a result, many are left to fend for themselves during downturns.
To be sure, freelancers have been the recipients of some relief lately. The CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act contain measures designed to help independent workers, including unprecedented steps to offer gig workers unemployment benefits for up to four months. But critics say it’s not enough.
“While Washington’s CARES Act has provided financial relief for independent workers, it’s clear that it is going to take much more to deal with the immediate and long-term impacts of this crisis,” said Rafael Espinal, president and executive director of Freelancers Union. “With rents and utilities due this month, we need bold measures from cities and sates.”
Nearly half of freelancers surveyed reported more than $5,000 in lost income to date. Many are reacting by looking for new income streams, but as they scour job boards, personal networks, and social media for gigs, 65 percent said they are finding it difficult to land work. At the same time, 12 percent are already working less due to new virus-related childcare requirements (school closures and the like).
Unsurprisingly, eighty percent of respondents said that access to unemployment benefits is absolutely critical to sustaining their work and life. With some 56 million independent workers in the U.S. workforce, will coronavirus be the moment of reckoning that forces policymakers to permanently extend unemployment relief to freelancers?
Espinal, whose organization recently launched the Freelancer Relief Fund, which offers up to $1,000 for eligible independent workers who experience a sudden loss of work due to COVID-19, certainly hopes so. “We shouldn’t have to wait for another pandemic to figure out how to support one-third of our country’s workforce.”
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