Amid barbecues and weekend getaways, Labor Day reminds us to take a moment to honor the contributions workers have made to our nation’s prosperity. Yet, for the 60 million Americans who are freelance workers, Labor Day instead serves as a reminder of how they’re often an afterthought in America’s economy.
For too long, independent workers have been devoid of adequate protections – including the most basic of them all, assured payment for services rendered. For the majority of independent workers in all 50 states, it often takes weeks or even months to get an invoice paid – if a payment even comes at all – and there are virtually no remedies when they get stiffed. How have we let down this huge segment of our workforce?
Labor Day could have a new meaning for independent workers across New York if Gov. Kathy Hochul signs the Freelance Isn’t Free Act into law, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature. The bill would protect freelancers from exploitation by giving them the right to written contracts for any project valued at $800 or greater, require payment within 30 days of services rendered (unless otherwise contractually agreed to), provide protections against retaliation, and establish penalties for violating these rights. Importantly, Freelance Isn’t Free would empower the Department of Labor and the attorney general to enforce these protections.
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On Aug. 4, Illinois Gov. Pritzker signed the Freelance Worker Protection Act into law, becoming the first state to extend payment protections to freelance workers. New York now has an opportunity to follow Illinois’ lead, and protect the freelancers who contribute over $30 billion in revenue every year and make up over a third of the New York workforce. Not only is this population growing, but they are the most vulnerable to exploitation. In NYS alone, 850,000 workers are low-wage independent contractors. That means the people who are struggling most to put food on the table are also the ones most at risk of not even getting paid at all.
There is a misperception that this is an NYC issue, where the Freelance Isn’t Free Act passed in 2016, and therefore we don’t need this across New York. It is not. There are six counties in New York State where the self-employed account for at least 10% of total employment — and none of them are Manhattan. Instead, it’s Columbia County, The Bronx, Queens, Putnam, Brooklyn, and Ulster. Literally half of the counties with the highest proportion of freelance workers are outside of the five boroughs. Freelancers work in every field: they aren’t just creatives or gig economy workers. The industry with the largest number of independent workers in New York State is the agricultural sector with 36% followed by arts and entertainment at 30%. That’s why the implementation of this statewide law is so significant.
New York can continue to lead on this national issue. There is an overwhelming consensus that everyone deserves to be paid for their work, yet for the 60 million freelancers in the United States, this has not been a consistent reality. Nonpayment is the No. 1 complaint the Freelancers Union received, with 74% of freelancers reporting having issues with non-payment. It is time for local legislatures — and the federal government — to step in and implement common-sense protections for the independent workforce and New York must continue to lead the way.
Now more than ever, uncertainty surrounds the freelancing job market and creative industries in this country. Indeed, the U.S. is facing ongoing labor disputes with the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes — demanding attention for improved labor conditions across the country for the many who work outside the confines of traditional employment. We urge all Americans, this Labor Day, to consider red, white and blue, and timely pay, too.
Rafael Espinal is head, National Freelancers Union; State Senator Andrew Gounardes represents NY District 26.