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COVID Highlights lack of Financial Safety-Net for Freelancers

EMILY PISACRETA, HOST : As the coronavirus continues to spread, unemployment rates are expected to reach unprecedented highs. And some workers are facing distinct challenges: freelancers. A study conducted by New York City shows nearly one-third of New Yorkers, 1.3 million, rely on some form of gig work, and it’s a sector that’s growing. Lauren Peace reports on how the crisis has highlighted how freelancers are financially vulnerable.

LAUREN PEACE: When 24 year old Jessica Hudspeth first moved to New York about a year and a half ago to start her career in the film industry, she says work was slow. That’s normal, it takes time to make connections. But after a year of taking on short freelance gigs , things began to get better. She scored a long term contract working in the props department for a major movie.

JESSICA HUDSPETH: I was set to work on this job March 16. Monday was my start date.

PEACE: Hudspeth says when she landed a job that had a longer lifespan, she was excited to finally have a few months of financial stability to look forward to. She was counting on the income to make her rent and student loan payments. . BUT THEN coronavirus hit and she got some news.

HUDSPETH: The Friday before the Monday I was supposed to start. So the 13th Yeah, Friday the 13th. Super unlucky day -- found out the job was postponed indefinitely and that we were not getting paid.

PEACE: Because she was a freelancer, and not in part of union, she says she was left without the resources that traditional workers have.

HUDSPETH: To have come from a place where I was counting on this job for two months and then and and barely making it by quite honestly and and being proud of myself for getting to that point where I was starting this job and was going to keep working and then having that opportunity taken away it was very scary.

PEACE: Hudspeth’s experience is not unique.

Alexandrea Ravenelle is a professor of sociology at UNC Chapel-Hill, and the author of Hustle and Gig, a book that explores the struggles and triumphs of gig workers, everyone from entertainment workers like Hudspeth to workers for service apps like Uber.

Ravenelle says that when things get tough, freelancers are often the first to be laid off because they don’t require benefits—like severance pay— laying them off is cheaper than company employees.

ALEXANDREA RAVENELLE: These workers are classified as independent contractors, which means they are outside the standard social safety net, they don't get insurance from the platforms or for the people they are freelancing for. They don't have access in many cases, to unemployment, to workers comp. or to any type of paid sick leave or leave from the work.

PEACE: And she says that even though some freelancers might already work remotely, which can make them more flexible, they can still be considered more expendable to companies.

RAVENELLE: It's very much a two edged sword. They might be the first ones to get rehired. And when the recession starts to wrap up or trickle off. But they might also be the first ones to lose their jobs as we enter into an economic downturn.

PEACE: Rafael Espinal is the president of the New York Freelancers Union. He says there’s a bright side. Just last week, the federal government passed a stimulus package:

RAFAEL ESPINAL: I think that this crisis has highlighted the need for government to step up and help these workers get by. The Federal bill was written with the goal of covering all workers that traditionally would not have qualified from employment insurance. And that includes freelancers.

PEACE: Like film industry worker Jessica Hudspeth, who’s now waiting to receive her first unemployment check, and hoping to get back to work sooner rather than later.

Lauren Peace, Columbia Radio News

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