Life

Freelancing Can Suck and Coronavirus Is Only Making It Worse

From musicians to designers to camera operators, COVID-19 is making an already precarious job harder.
19 March 2020, 9:30am
Coronavirus
Photo: Chris Bethell

The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing by the day, meaning some of the information in this article might be out of date. For our most recent coronavirus coverage, click here.

Ant Lacey is not used to being at home. As a freelance merchandise guy for a bunch of heavy metal bands, the last three years have involved constantly being on tour and travelling around the world to gigs and festivals. Last year, he only spent six weeks at home. Then the coronavirus outbreak hit.

“As of now, I’m completely at home,” Lacey tells me over the phone. “All the tours I had booked for the rest of the year – I was fully booked for the rest of the year – have all been cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future.”

Freelance life can be precarious, but the recent coronavirus outbreak has made things much worse. Thanks to the virus, which has had a painful economic impact across the globe, freelancers are facing an unprecedented threat to their livelihoods. The outbreak has left almost no industry untouched – everyone from freelance video editors to musicians to chefs to designers are facing cancelled work or delayed payments as companies scramble to make up their losses. With no government safety net for freelance workers, including no statutory sick pay, financial downturns like this can be worrying.

For now, Max has no work until May. “As it stands, I will be doing SlamDunk [festival] and a [other] few festivals,” he says, “but as the way things are going... We don't know day to day whether they're going to get cancelled."

He estimates that he will have lost over £10,000 as a result of the cancellation and uncertainty. “If festivals fall through the next thing I’ll be doing is in October,” says Max. “It's worrying.”

It’s not just freelancers in the music industry that are taking a hit. Alex Enright, 23, was working as a camera operator for a horse racing broadcast company but decided to go freelance three months ago. Just before he left his job, he got a mortgage with his girlfriend. Suffice to say, it was bad timing.

“I did a [freelance] pro and cons list, and thought, it's really not much of a risk,” says Enright over the phone. “No one would have expected this virus to come out of nowhere and stop all of TV.”

Enright predicts he’s lost at least £4,000 in April alone. “I've literally got zero income until May 1st, but it could get pushed even further,” he tells me over. “I've lost three football days and probably about 20 horse racing days so far. I could have no income from April, May, June, maybe July."

As a result, Enright is thinking about backup options for his income source. “It's going to be pretty rough,” he says. “I'm looking at options. I could sign up for Universal Credit, potentially, and have some money coming in, or I could just get any kind of part-time work – I could work for Tesco as a delivery driver for a couple of months until it all resorts back to normal.”

Many freelancers are now having to face these kind of decisions while their work dries up. Fabian Wallace-Stephens, a senior researcher at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Future Work Centre, tells me there are limited options to support freelancers during difficult periods: “The government’s promise of covering the costs of sick pay for two weeks does not cover the self-employed, so freelancers will have to apply for Universal Credit.”

While this is far from what many expected from their year, this may have a positive effect on the way we work: “Depending on how severe the impact of the virus is, the government will be forced to consider the millions of workers in insecure work who cannot survive relatively small economic shocks,” says Wallace-Stephens. “The best outcome would be a wider transformation of the welfare system, including the introduction of portable benefits, where employees can access benefits such as sick pay across different employers. A universal basic income, where everyone receives a regular sum of money regardless of their employment status, could also become necessary.”

Anna Codrea-Rado, a freelance journalist and founder of the Fair Pay for Freelancers campaign, tells me that is going to be a difficult time for freelancers. “Depending on the kind of freelancer or what kind of industry you work in, I do think that corona does pose quite significant challenges for freelancers."

However, there are some practical tools for managing a drop in income, says Codrea-Rado. “Take a look at all the different ways you make money, or all the different aspects of your freelancing business, and do a 'what if' scenario on each of them,” she says. “If you make your money from speaking at events, what if your events are cancelled? Go through all the different areas and try to do a little assessment as to whether corona is going to affect it.”

“[It’s] probably good to do an exercise in your outgoings as well,” she continues. “Is there anything you can reduce or cut that you don't need?”

This is an uncertain time for freelancers. No matter what industry you work in, this virus will have some impact on your life. While your finances might seem the most important thing to focus on, it's important to keep an eye on your mental wellbeing as well.

“This is a very uncertain and worrying time, everyone is really scared but your worry can get out of control,” says Codrea-Rado. “Worry about the things that you can do things about, and try to worry about the things that you can't less. Accept the fact it might be hard to work right now. Don't beat yourself up about it.”

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