Photos and video by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi
One would think that freelance work is lucrative. On paper, in theory, this is true. The reality, however, is very different. The sad fact is that 1.3 million freelancers in New York city lost an average of $6,000 a year to nonpayment. The reason for this is simple. There is no legal protection for freelancers. If a freelance worker is hired for a job, often he / she is not paid. They may be underpaid, paid late, or never paid at all. If they sue the company, there is no legal framework clearly defining freelancers’ rights in the way a regular W2 employee’s rights are protected. Even if they do win the case, freelancers have no way to actually collect what they’re owed. To add insult to injury, freelancers who dare to challenge having their rightfully earned wages stolen are often blacklisted. The situation is, quite simply, intolerable.
On Monday, February 29th the NYC Council – Committee on Consumer Affairs held a hearing on the Freelance Isn’t Free Act (int. 1017a). A press conference was held before NYC Council- Consumer Affairs Committee hearing. Founder and executive Director, Sara Horowitz, gig workers rallied behind the bill to stop NYC’s nonpayment epidemic.
The “Freelance Isn’t Free” Act requires any company who hires a freelance worker to execute a simple written contract that describe the work to be completed, the rate and method of payment, and date when payment is due. Companies who refuse to pay, or try to force freelancers to wait months to get paid in full, would be answerable to the City’s Department of Consumer Affairs and face penalties, including double or treble damages, attorney’s fees, civil penalties, and in extreme cases, criminal penalties. The bill is sponsored by Council member Brad Lander and has 27 co-sponsors. Supporters of the bill included the Freelancers Union, Council Members Brad Lander, Margaret Chin, and Rafael Espinal, Chair Consumer Affairs Committee, United Federation of Teachers (UFT), SEIU 32BJ, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Make the Road New York, New York Tech Meetup, and the musicians non-profit organization Musicians for Musicians (MFM).
New York City will be the first to pass this legislation. The act will write new rules for the new economy, and set a precedent that the rest of the nation will have little choice but to follow.
The hearing was held in the NYC Council Chambers. Raphael Espinal of Consumer Affairs described the bill. Councilman Lander spoke about the bill. Afterward, several freelance professionals from a variety of businesses and professions testified. These included web developers, fashion designers, writers, publishers, court reporters, theater production, film production, linguists, voice over actors, and a variety of industries not traditionally associated with freelance workers. MFM represented musicians.
The common theme that ran through the testimonies was that employers / clients routinely reneged on their agreement. This, even when a contract was signed. The problem is clearly the result of no legislation existing to support freelancers who are victimized by the businesses that hire them. These businesses are almost invariably large corporations that have tons of money. But since freelancers have no legal protections, corporations see freelancers as an exploitable resource that doesn’t need to get paid.
The Deputy Commissioner of Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) represented Mayor de Blasio‘s support of the bill. Details of the bill were discussed. The DCA brought up several points that needed to be clarified. Some of these included costs of litigation and where the money for this would come from, methods of contextual disputes, and methods of negotiation for the specific needs of different professions.
The Freelancers Union testified, stating that 70% of all freelancers are cheated out of payment for their work. It was mentioned that stealing freelancers’ wages is supported by the lack of meaningful consequences for this theft. Thus, there exists for businesses and corporations an economic incentive to steal from freelancers. Mention was also made that most freelancers who are cheated out of proper compensation for their work lack the resources to seek legal recourse to settle their disputes, and the ugly realities of threats of retaliation against freelancers who seek litigation for unpaid work.
The dominance of technological services across the board has created an environment where businesses of all kinds are dependent upon independent tech developers. The lack of legal protection for freelancers actually threatens the entire structure of the new economy. Thus, the bill would serve as a stabilizing element for the direction our economy is headed, and in the long run, everyone would win.
It was regrettable that MFM was the only musician’s organization that stands in support of this bill. MFM founder Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi spoke eloquently about the situation musicians share with all other freelancers. The protection this bill would offer to the musical community all across the board is so obvious it hardly bears mentioning. Musicians, historically, have been victimized by the very epidemic of nonpayment that all other freelancers have experienced. The absence of support by the Local 802 Musicians Union is truly lamentable.
In articles I wrote about MFM’s public meetings, I pointed out some difficulties MFM faces regarding the ambiguous legal definition of musicians and their services. The model of the Freelancers Union, the redefinition of labor categories within the “new economy”, and the 1017a bill may provide the answer to this conundrum.