gig economy

I Narrowly Avoided Coronavirus Disaster

Last month, I left freelance writing for a job with benefits. Amid a global pandemic, that change has provided me with arbitrary security and made the problems with the gig economy clear.
March 17, 2020, 3:14pm
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Collage by Lia Kantrowitz | Images via Shutterstock

The only major change in my life over the last month is that I got a unionized staff job at VICE, where you have the dubious pleasure of reading me right now.

Before, I was a full-time freelance writer, which involved almost the same exact work that I do now. Every morning, I woke up and started reporting pieces. I wrote blogs and essays and features. I made phone calls and sent emails. If I was low on assignments, I’d sit and write up pitches to send to my editors. When lunchtime came around—usually 11:40am—I made myself pasta with red sauce.

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The spread of COVID-19, or coronavirus, has laid bare the many fractures that already exist within the American economy. We've been forced to confront all of the arbitrary and cruel ways in which our daily lives operate: Service workers aren’t able to stay home from work because they need the pay. There are major gaps in who gets treated in our medical system. People who lost their incomes are now at risk of getting evicted from their homes. Perhaps one of the biggest divides is between the types of work that provide affordable health benefits and those that don’t.

Freelance writing doesn’t have the exact same challenges facing other, more vulnerable gig workers, but it still has its difficulties. The pay is often low, assignments can fall through quickly, and you’re at the whim of multiple bosses. But already, many low-income freelancers of all stripes are struggling even more in the weeks since coronavirus made its way here. In-person reporting gigs have been put off, cancelled events means performers are out of luck, and sex workers are losing clients. For some, the only lifelines are community organizing groups and GoFundMe campaigns.

One month ago, I would have been in that boat. But because I was arbitrarily selected for this job in the literal nick of time, I’ve been provided with at least temporary cover in the form of full-time employment. And now, the disparities between my current position and my past one, even within the same exact job description and industry, could not seem more absurd or immense.

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As coronavirus spreads, freelance work has been among the first types of jobs to fall off the cliff. This applies far beyond any single industry. As Jacobin pointed out, the current debate over sick leave and emergency relief completely leaves out the plight of gig workers, who have in many ways defined the economy of the last decade. Anyone in the “informal” workforce—Uber and Lyft drivers, sex workers, undocumented workers, domestic workers, artists, performers, the people who are cleaning our offices—is losing income, and doing so quickly, while still getting sick and having to pay rent and feed themselves just like anyone else. What coronavirus has only made more clear is that these precarious work situations are also life-or-death ones.

In my case, since much of VICE’s staff has shifted to work from home last week, even the illusion of the physical barrier between freelancers and staffers—an office—has been stripped away. Some of my friends in the industry who have staff jobs are now navigating how to work from home for the first time, and many have asked how I’ve been able to do this for the past year. I gently remind them that it isn’t working from home that’s driving everyone insane, but the fact that we’re undergoing a worldwide pandemic.

Companies that profit from misclassification argue that gig workers just love their flexibility—setting their own hours, working from home, freelancing for other employers—without noting that there’s no reason why a full-time or part-time W-2 job can’t also be just as flexible. The droves of people who can work from home and are now doing so are illustrating just that. The cracks in this facade are breaking down day by day.

A month ago, if I got sick, I would simply not work and not get paid. Or I would work while sick and try to get my assignments done anyway so I wouldn’t miss a deadline. If I took a vacation, I didn’t get paid. I was paying $191 per month for barebones health coverage on the state’s exchange, which was the only plan I could afford—the next one up was more than $350 per month. Because I was under 30 years old, I qualified for Oscar’s “catastrophic” plan, so my monthly $191 got me a $8,150 deductible and a whopping three primary care visits per year.

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Now, I have five days of paid sick leave and three weeks of paid time off. Under my employer-sponsored plan, I pay $40 per month with a $1,250 deductible. Before if I had felt sick, I would have hesitated for a long time before seeing a doctor. And with my enormous deductible, I avoided emergency rooms and ambulances at all costs.

At the beginning of this year, I hit a low financial point in my work—most of the money I made was from more regular contracts and bigger projects that had already ended. Today, I have steady income that will allow me to weather this epidemic for now, without worrying where my next assignment is coming from. While I was lucky enough to have money saved up from previous jobs, the slowdown in work under coronavirus could have been disastrous if I were living paycheck-to-paycheck as many freelancers do.

None of this is new. It’s part of what has driven me and many others in our industry to organize on the behalf of freelancers. But the distinctions that are already brutal during normal times are only more barbaric in a crisis. The question—why should I, the same person doing the same type of work, be totally fucked if the virus had struck 37 days ago and (more or less) secure today—is ridiculous on its face. America has an almost pathological attachment to making benefits conditional on formal, full-time employment. But why should anyone in the richest country in the world not have health care, sick leave, family leave, retirement benefits, or a steady income just because of their employment classification?

Under pandemic, the thin lines that separate us have blurred even as we isolate. A virus knows no national boundaries. It doesn’t differentiate between presidents and everyday people. On a local level, as people begin organizing to take care of each other in their neighborhoods, the walls between our apartments, lives, fears, and hopes are dissolving. But at the same time, those lines are becoming thicker than ever. It’s important to remember that while these designations are arbitrary and should be overturned, they still exist in the most painful ways.

As I worked from home this week, I put a note in the lobby to start a phone-tree for our building, the idea being to share resources and offer support among neighbors. “We’re all in this together,” I wrote on the note. It felt true, but it also feels like far from enough.

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