Everybody in New York has a hustle: Whether coding websites, mixing drinks, or painting houses, people stitch together self-employed livelihoods through casual, newfangled, and ad hoc gigs. But amid the infinite variety of freelance jobs, there are just as many ways to get screwed.
The “Freelance isn’t Free” Act purports to be one of the first concrete legislative measures aimed at protecting independent workers specifically by providing a new enforcement mechanism to go after derelict bosses. The proposed bill would empower the Mayor’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) to aid with investigating wage claims and recovering lost pay, as an alternative to the longer and more costly court process for seeking backwages.
The legislation, backed by local unions and community groups, is aimed at freelancers for whom a full-fledged lawsuit might not be worth the cost of the few thousand dollars lost for, say, a small carpentry project or published article. But for freelancers as a class, those tiny sums add up to a major occupational hazard, according to the advocacy group Freelancers Union (FU). A recent survey commissioned by FU shows that many freelancers treat wage theft as an inevitable cost of doing business.
In a sample of 5,000 freelancers (including members and non-members of FU), across various professions like construction, marketing, and musical performance, the portion who were cheated out of income ranged around 70 to 80 percent. And wage theft doesn’t just occur in skeevy fly-by-night transactions but also major companies. About a third of contractors for larger firms, of 150 or more employees, “had trouble collecting payment,” as did more than 40 percent of those working for firms with five or fewer employees.
To cope with income loss, most reported falling back on personal savings—and in a sign of how the income erosion has cascading effects for the whole economy, nearly half took on credit-card debt, a quarter borrowed from friends, and 7 percent tapped into public assistance. This is happening in an economy in which regular wage theft for traditional workers is already tremendous; one analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that more than $930 million were formally recovered for wage-theft victims over the course of 2012 alone, not counting cases of wage disputes that were never legally resolved.
The social costs for individuals, meanwhile, are immeasurable. As freelance theater technician Lily Meyer remarked at the announcement of the legislation, for many independent workers in New York, “It’s incredibly destabilizing not knowing if or when you’ll be paid for your work—it causes tremendous anxiety and very real financial strain.”