TAX TIPS FOR INDY WORKERS.
Indy work, the gig economy, and organizing for worker rights aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of Hollywood. Nevertheless, as W. Harry Fortuna, a former movie location manager and scout, writes in an article for Quartz: “The gig economy has existed in Hollywood for a very long time—and today’s Uber and TaskRabbit workers could learn a lot from Tinseltown.”
Fortuna tells the history of worker organizing in Hollywood’s gig economy from the earliest union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), “formed in New York City in the mid-1880s during Vaudeville-era Broadway,” to the Teamsters (who were connected to Hollywood by their transportation of people and equipment to various film sites), to “the talent guilds, like the Directors, Writers, and Screen Actors Guilds, came decades later, at the end of the Silent Era of movie-making in the 1930s.”
What Hollywood has to teach indy workers, according to Fortuna, is that “Hollywood workers know that we are only as strong as we are united.”
What each of these eras had in common, and what gave workers a shared struggle around which to organize, was the unpredictability of the work. To this day, what unites actors, script writers, and film crews is the fact that “on-demand labor drives every TV show, movie, commercial, and scripted program in the US. The entertainment industry is entirely dependent on the availability of a talented and dedicated labor force that is ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Fortuna could be describing any indy worker in today’s gig economy when he writes:
“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Hollywood workforce with niche specializations whose services are not in consistent demand. When you’re not working, you hope to get a call—maybe temporary work for a day or a week or a month, or, if you’re lucky, steady work on a hit TV show that could last for years.”
Given the unpredictable nature of work in Hollywood:
“Without the promise of high-quality, consistent healthcare, access to pension and saving plans, and guarantees to prevent a race to the bottom wherein younger, hungrier, needier workers can underbid wages and take away jobs, it would be nearly impossible to retain the kind of talent that’s required to make Hollywood magic a reality.”
This is exactly where unions and guilds, like the Indy Worker Guild, come into play: “Unions ensure that those dedicated to the work know what to expect and have a say as to the minimum of what protections and benefits are provided.”
What Hollywood has to teach indy workers, according to Fortuna, is that “Hollywood workers know that we are only as strong as we are united.”
Fortuna notes that part of the reason worker organizing has been slow to take in the gig economy has to do with the anti-union rhetoric put forth by companies and businesses eager to take advantage of cheaper labor.
Some of the same reasons given against organizing indy workers today were used by the Hollywood executives of old. For instance, one of the “key argument that gig-economy corporations make against unionization is that their business models will be ruined if workers are classified as employees rather than independent contractors.” Because independent contractors are not legally able to organize unions, we created the Indy Worker Guild, as an advocacy organization for workers in the gig economy.
Fortuna responds that “to this, Hollywood history says: ‘Yawn, what else you got?’” He notes that “Hollywood studios and productions tried and failed to apply this argument to writers numerous times throughout the 1930s and 1940s.” Given that we continue to enjoy movies and television, and that Hollywood continues to thrive, this argument rings hollow.
Learning the lessons that the history of Hollywood worker organizing has to offer, the key takeaway for indy workers in the gig economy is that only in uniting together can we win the benefits and protections the unpredictable nature of our work makes necessary.
As Fortuna puts it, after joining the Teamsters Union: “There was no difference in my job responsibilities, and no change in the amount of hours I worked per day. The only difference was whether it was me, alone, against management, or me as a part of the team of thousands with similar responsibilities and interests.”
The Indy Worker Guild stands ready to bring together thousands of indy workers with similar responsibilities and interests in healthcare, paid leave, workers’ compensation, and so on. Please, feel free to contact us if you’d like to tell us your story or share ideas you might have about organizing. To quote Fortuna one last time: “If today’s gig-economy workers need proof of the possibilities offered by collective bargaining, they need only look West.”
Last week, CNN Money posted an article titled “5 Things Every Gig Worker Should Know.” Unfortunately, by “every gig worker” they really meant, “every gig worker who is financially stable enough to choose leaving a permanent position for indy work.”
Let’s look at the 5 things we should know according to the article:
“1. Develop an exit strategy.”
The idea here assumes that you already have a full-time job. Though the article mentions the possibility that someone might be turning to indy work out of necessity, the recommendation for developing an exit strategy is to “imagine you’re going to be laid off from your job in six months.” You’re supposed to ask “what events and conferences would you attend? Who would you reconnect with? What skills or certifications would you work on?” We’re clearly talking about someone with the kind of financial resources to network and/or gain some kind of new educational credentials or skills.
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to prepare in advance of losing a full-time job. Downsizing, lay offs, and termination for any number of reasons leave people unemployed and without any chance to prepare. In these scenarios, indy work isn’t something that is turned to for more freedom around one’s schedule or for the autonomy that certain kinds of freelancing can offer. Rather, indy workers often have multiple part-time gigs they string together, or, they work full-time and have a side gig — all in the effort to just make ends meet.
“2. Create a safety blanket”
The second thing CNN Money thinks you should know is that it’s important to “ensure you have a healthy nest egg for those rainy days — especially when your income is fluctuating.” This can be done, according to the article, by “putting aside at least six months’ worth of minimum living expenses into a savings account (or more, depending on your spending habits).” Again, this assumes that you have enough time and money to be able to save six months worth of living expenses before becoming an indy worker.
More importantly, this tip assumes that indy workers should be individually responsible for the fluctuation in income that often characterizes independent, contract, and freelance work. Just as workers in this country have organized throughout our history for the protections and benefits that offset the difficulties associated with full-time employment – for example, paid sick leave, pension plans, the eight hour work day, breaks, etc., – so too can indy workers organize.
The Indy Worker Guild exists precisely to unite indy workers across a range of gig economy jobs. We are stronger together than alone. Collective pressure is an effective force against unwilling employers, and can also push legislation and policies that establish benefits and protections to offset the difficulties of indy work. If indy work causes fluctuations in income, then we need a worker-led and government instituted solution to that difficulty. (See the section titled “Multiemployer Plans” in this report for some ideas about solving the problem of income instability for indy workers.)
“3. Figure out a retirement plan”
Because there are currently no employer offered retirement plans for indy workers, this tip, once again, assumes that indy workers should be responsible for figuring out something on their own. See the response to number 2 above.
“4. Don’t forget about your taxes”
This is good advice. As 1099 workers, indy workers are responsible for paying their own taxes as well as the employer-side taxes. Rather than the article’s suggestion that taxes should be reviewed by an accountant every month, and all the assumptions about income that lie behind that suggestion, it would be much more inclusive to advocate for affordable, public accountants who can help low-income indy worker with their taxes. Indeed, with enough numbers, an organization like the Indy Worker Guild could offer such discounted (or even free) services to its members. Again, we’re stronger together than alone.
“5. Read the fine print”
This tip, based on the same assumptions as having an accountant review your taxes every month, suggests that you “find a lawyer to help review contracts.” Again, a more inclusive suggestion would be for affordable, public attorneys that can help any indy worker review contracts. Of course not all indy workers are in the position to negotiate their contracts, and to be fair, the article does acknowledge that “individuals will likely have little leverage to negotiate contracts with bigger companies such as Uber.” What about a large number of individuals organized together though? Organizing together through a group such as the Indy Worker Guild is the only way to negotiate the fine print in contracts with big companies.
In short, it’s important to remember that not every indy worker has the means or the choices available to individually sustain themselves. Any tips offered to “every gig worker” should account for the precariousness experienced by many, many people working in the gig economy and should be forthright in offering solutions to help all indy workers, not just the privileged few. Foremost among any and all suggestions is to unite together to fight together for worker justice in the gig economy – – which is precisely the mission of the Indy Worker Guild
In last week’s New York Magazine article “I Love the Freelance Life, But It’s Taking a Toll on My Mental Health,” author Cinnamon Janzer describes her experience of the mental turmoil brought on by her work as a freelancer:
“My work as a freelance writer had been s-l-o-w. Days without much work bled into weeks, and somewhere along the way the catastrophizing, negative thoughts began to creep in. This is what failure is, I thought. I was convinced that I’d burn through my little savings in no time and end up broke, not even able to do basic things like feed the dog or pay the bills. Even though, up until that point, things had been consistent and — dare I say — even moderately prosperous for me, I was sure that any success I’d had was sheer luck, and that my luck had run out.”
In fact, Janzer cites a German study that found “poor subjective health was reported by 37 percent of the German freelancers who participated.” Moreover, the researchers “‘found a more specific pattern of health problems in freelancers: chronic strain and a reduced ability to relax,’ as a result of long working hours in conjunction with an unpredictable workload.” Janzen also notes a study of indy workers from Sweden that “identified high job insecurity and financial difficulties as the most common stressors, and tied them to ‘sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, a high prevalence of antidepressant drug use, and ‘presenteeism,’ a term for continuing to work in the face of illness or other factors that warrant a break.'” In other words, Janzer’s experience is not an anomaly.
While Janzer rightly calls for access to counseling for indy workers, her comment that the growing gig economy will mean more people exposed to “the work conditions that beget the mental-health issues that freelancers…experience,” betrays an understanding of present work structures as unchangeable.
Janzer’s own experience, combined with that of other indy workers interviewed in the article and the results of the research studies, reveal that the work conditions proving detrimental to mental health primarily involve job insecurity and thus financial insecurity. Because indy work is contract work, there is no guarantee that when one contract ends another will take its place. Indy workers can go days and even months between gigs while rent/mortgage, bills, health care, groceries, debt, etc., use financial resources regardless of whether one is actively working or not.
Counseling may indeed be one part of a solution to the decrease in mental health among indy workers, but the larger and even more effective solution would be to advance a political and policy agenda that accounts for the changing structure of work in the 21st century. It’s time for new and innovative ideas on ways to bring job and financial security to indy workers.
For example, one such idea seeks to make traditional benefits like health care and retirement savings available to contract workers by having these benefits move with workers as they move from job to job. Such portable benefits are one way of providing security in changed environment.
In a similar marriage of an “older” solution to worker insecurity (i.e., benefits) with the “new” context of work in the 21st century (i.e., making benefits portable), the Aspen Institute suggests looking to current multi-employment plans, such as those used by the Screen Actors Guild, as inspiration for solving the job and financial insecurity that causes anguish for indy workers like Janzen. As the author’s of the report, “Portable Benefits in the 21st Century,” write:
“One additional component of some Multiemployer Plans is the concept of an ‘hour bank,’ which provides for continuous coverage of benefits, despite fluctuating hours. For each hour of employment, the worker “banks” the hourly contribution defined in the bargaining agreement. A worker must meet a certain threshold of hours to become eligible to receive benefits (for example 140 hours per month) and hours worked beyond that threshold are ‘banked’ for future months. Further, an employee can bank hours earned from multiple employers that are members of the same plan. If a worker’s number of hours drops below the threshold in future months, due to a job ending, weather, or other factors, hours will be deducted from the bank to maintain eligibility. This arrangement is particularly relevant in industries with short-term projects, multiple employers, and seasonal working conditions, such as the construction industry, as the hour bank can fill gaps in employment.”
Of course, access to health care benefits for indy workers would also mean access to mental health counseling, and the above is certainly not to deny the need for such access. On the other hand, personal therapy is not the sum of the solution to mental health issues caused by the current structuring of indy work and the benefits and protections afforded to workers. In the end, it is only by coming together and organizing for better working conditions that workers in the past have achieved a semblance of job, financial, and mental health security. There’s every reason to believe that the same is true for workers in the gig economy now, and in the future.
Portable benefits are benefits that are not tied to any particular job or company. While “traditionally, benefits are attached to a specific job, this does not match the reality of work for many in today’s economy, who may derive their income from multiple sources simultaneously or who may regularly switch jobs or employers”(1). In other words, portable benefits match the needs of indy workers in the gig economy.
In May of this year, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced legislation that would create a $20 million fund from which the Department of Labor could provide grants to pilot programs to experiment with ways to provide portable benefits to indy workers. Local and state governments, as well as non-profit organizations such as unions, would be eligible to apply for the grants.
Called the “Portable Benefits Pilot Program Act (PBPPA),” the legislation has made its appearance in the midst of a chaotic, and anything but bipartisan atmosphere in our nation’s capitol. While indy workers have overwhelmingly benefited from the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with its provisions for more affordable health insurance through state exchanges rather than a single, full-time employer, the current administration has repeatedly sought the ACA’s repeal.
That’s why it is rather remarkable, and even news worthy, that this week a Republican has signed on as a co-sponsor of the PBPPA. Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) decided to become a co-sponsor, as he told Bloomberg BNA, because he feels it’s time for Congress to “embrace the emerging gig economy as a way to generate upward mobility for Americans.”
Given that the gig economy continues to grow each year, Senator Young recognizes that now is the moment to push through to solutions for the challenges presented by new work structures, and, as he states, the PBPPA “starts that conversation and launches a pilot program that just might lead to a solution that benefits millions of Americans over time.”
The hope, of course, is that more and more members of Congress will sign onto the PBPPA, and this show of bipartisanship in such a fractured moment is a good sign. The fact that a Democrat and a Republican can agree on something related to benefits for workers reveals the urgency of the need.
Has your Senator gotten on board yet?
Find their contact information here.
Returning from their Fourth of July recess this week, Senators have been faced with more protests against the BCRA (the Senate version of the GOP health care bill), and the prospect of a vote sometime next week.
While protests around the country have been ongoing, particularly by people with disabilities, yesterday, eighty people were arrested for civil disobedience at several Senate and House offices in Washington, DC. Shouting “Health care is a human right!,” the protesters were handcuffed and taken away by the Captiol police.
Given that the BCRA proposes huge cuts to Medicaid and would cause some 22 million people to lose insurance, the protests don’t come as a surprise.
Indeed, our last blog post pointed out the ways in which the BCRA is potentially harmful for gig workers.
A revised version of the bill is expected to be released Thursday with a score from the Congressional Budget Office following early next week, and a subsequent vote toward the end of the week.
Unfortunately, the revised version is based on a proposal from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that the Washington Post says “would let health insurers offer plans that don’t follow Obamacare’s rules as long as they offer one that does.” In other words, insurers would “once again be free to not only sell skimpy plans that didn’t cover things like mental health or maternity care or prescription drugs, but also charge people with preexisting conditions more for them — if they didn’t just deny them outright.”
We now have less than two weeks to convince the Senate that any dismantling or repeal of the Affordable Care Act is not in the best interests of gig workers and in fact ALL workers in this country.
According to most observers, repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is quietly moving forward. As the Washington Post describes it, while public attention has been focused on the Comey testimony and the Russia investigation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been using “sabotage, speed, and secrecy” to advance the GOP’s Affordable Healthcare for America Act.
Gig workers should be very concerned. As the New York Times has pointed out, “in recent years, millions of middle- and working-class Americans have moved from job to job…[,]…the Affordable Care Act has enabled many of those workers to get transitional coverage that provides a bridge to the next phase of their lives — a stopgap to get health insurance if they leave a job, are laid off, start a business or retire early.”
With the GOP’s healthcare plan, however, “changing jobs or careers could become much more difficult,” the same New York Times article notes, as “millions of people could also wind up with little choice but to buy cheap plans that provided minimal coverage in states that opted out of requiring insurers to cover maternity care, mental health and addiction treatment or rehabilitation services, among other services required under the Affordable Care Act. Consumers who could not afford high premiums would wind up with enormous out-of-pocket medical expenses.”
As if this wasn’t enough to concern gig workers, last week BuzzFeed alerted readers that “the Trump administration has withdrawn Obama-era legal interpretations that said millions of American workers, from McDonalds cooks to Uber drivers, should be treated as employees of the corporations they work for.” Effectively making it easier to consider those working for platform companies as contractors rather than employees, the move “will almost certainly affect the outcome of cases now before the National Labor Relations Board, which concern whether parent companies like McDonald’s are responsible for labor conditions at franchise locations, and what rights and benefits companies like Uber owe their drivers.”
Making healthcare harder to access and more expensive for indy workers, while allowing platform companies to consider their workers as contract labor and thus to evade a whole series of regulations, the Trump administration has proven itself incapable of considering the actual needs of gig workers.
The digital platform Fiverr, which is used by freelancers to offer a variety of services to customers worldwide, recently began an ad campaign aimed at independent workers that has been taking some heat — and for good reason.
The most talked about image (above), features a young woman with tired eyes, messy hair, and text that glorifies constant productivity. Addiction to stimulants and sleep deprivation are portrayed as the positive lengths the Fiverr freelancer will go to in their pursuit of “follow through.”
Perhaps the best criticism of the idea that freelancing equals surrendering yourself to work so that you have no room left for anything else in your life comes in the form of this satirical essay by Max Noblauch on Mashable.
For example, taking Fiverr’s “being-productive-is-life” logic to the extreme, he writes: “You’re a plumber in the morning, carpenter in the afternoon, driver at night. You eat, dream, and breathe caffeine… None of your employers offer health insurance. So what — you’ll find an app and start being a doctor. Hell yeah. It’s good. You’re a doer.”
His short piece is well worth the read, and his overall point is absolutely correct — Gig workers need health insurance, vacation time, financial security, and a host of other things now generally provided for full-time, permanent employees.
The idea that certain people are just “doers” and willingly work so much that they need stimulants to stay awake is ridiculous. People do such things because they’re trying to make ends meet. Companies like Fiverr would do well to learn that lesson and start figuring out ways to include worker protections and benefits in their business models.
Gig workers shouldn’t wait for companies to begin this process though, organizing and demanding that our needs are met should begin right now.