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Work Without Benefits: America’s Freelance Workforce Is Left Without a Safety Net

A new NPR/Marist poll finds that 1 in 5 jobs in the U.S. is held by a worker under contract. Within a single decade, freelancers and contractors could make up half of the workforce.

Working as a freelancer can come with some flexibility, but it also means you don’t have the safety net of benefits that many traditional workers enjoy. And the toll isn’t just financial: it can have physical and emotional effects too.

Matt Nelson is one of millions of contract workers who relishes his life as a freelance Web developer. It gives him the space to split time between making a living and following his passions. But that’s not how the gig started.

“I didn’t get into freelancing personally by choice,” he says. During the last recession, he says, “I could not find a job. … I couldn’t get an email back or a phone call for the life of me.”

Nelson was in extensive company. He volunteers as leader of the Madison, Wis., chapter of Spark, a networking group started by the Freelancers Union that includes an insect farming consultant and an astrobiologist, as well as members from every other imaginable industry and background.

Nelson, now 41, explains that members trade tips and share stories —otherwise, they would just be left to fly solo, with no support or sense of community. “We really don’t have much of a social safety net, and that’s terrifying,” he says.

An NPR/Marist poll released in January shows contract work is exploding, with 32 million Americans currently making their living that way.

 

That trend is expected to keep growing over the next decade, as companies seek more flexibility and cost savings through temporary work arrangements. This raises some urgent questions about the future of the safety net. According to the poll, half of freelance and contract workers receive NO benefits. They do not get sick leave, unemployment insurance, or retirement savings.

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, voices his concern that workers without benefits will put additional pressure on already strained public budgets. He’s an advocate for making benefits portable, so freelancers can take them with them regardless of where they work. In fact, Warner has introduced a bill to fund such programs.

“If we don’t have a social contract for this workforce, if we don’t have social insurance that moves with workers, then I feel like the economic discontent and economic insecurity that comes from working with no safety net under you would rise dramatically,” he says.

Los Angeles freight truck driver Rene Flores has experienced that insecurity firsthand. Most drivers became contractors four decades ago with the trucking industry was deregulated — but Flores says the company he worked for didn’t actually treat him as a free agent.

“They always assigned me the work they wanted to do,” he says. “They would send me where they wanted me to go. They always set the price. I never did.”

 

Being a contractor meant he had was responsible for paying for his own gas and truck repairs. Moreover, the company didn’t give him health insurance, which became an urgent problem when he fell on the job three years ago.

Flores developed a giant hernia but simply had to muscle through the pain without medical care. When he eventually complained about the lack of benefits in a newspaper interview, he was fired.

Flores eventually took a new job, but he couldn’t keep working without surgery. He ultimately borrowed $10,000 from friends to get a cheaper operation in Mexico. He then immediately rushed back to work, still bandaged and bleeding.

“I don’t have the resources to keep going for two more weeks and pay my rent and my bills,” he says, sitting on his sofa, bandaged around his midsection.

The toll of insecurity isn’t just financial. “Being a freelancer, you really have to be on top of your emotional and mental health,” says Carolina Salas, a New York City freelance marketing expert who helps medical practices attract new patients.

Salas, who is 32, says anxiety and the demands of freelance work contributed to a pinched sciatic nerve, immobilizing her for nearly half a year.

“As a contractor, the expectations of you are much higher than if you were an employee,” she says. “They’re moving so quickly and they have so little consideration or awareness for you that they sometimes forget that you’re actually human.”

Developed a safety net model for this new American workforce will take time, says Arun Sundararajan, a management professor at New York University. And he predicts that the transition will be messy.

“Full-time employment didn’t sort of come packaged with all of these wonderful things that we now associate with it; it was built painstakingly over 100 years,” Sundararajan says.

Some are calling for freelancers to organize together to advocated for rights and benefits. “There are really big risks in freelancing, because the income is so episodic and freelancers aren’t entitled to unemployment insurance and this is really bad for low-wage workers in particular,” says Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, which has 350,000 members.

Horowitz puts her hope in solutions like her union’s health insurance, which it has offered to members for two decades.

“The answer is to build a safety net that’s universal for everybody,” she says. “Not to say this is only for very low wage workers, nor is it to say this is for highly skilled professional workers, but actually, they’re all going through this together.”

The best way around that fear, she says, is to create a new social safety net where freelancers can depend on each other. Horowitz says she hopes that the tens of millions of freelancers will take their concerns to the polls, and that elected officials will push for plans to rethink the social safety net.

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Emery Reddy