Labor Day: To revive post-coronavirus economy, freelancer workers need our support

Freelance jobs surging amid coronavirus pandemic

Upwork CEO Hayden Brown discusses the big shift towards remote work amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This year's Labor Day celebrations will be far more subdued than normal.
More than 50 million Americans have filed unemployment claims since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And business bankruptcies are expected to rise nearly 50 percent this year. Thousands of firms — from national retail chains to mom-and-pop shops and local businesses — are struggling.

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This unprecedented economic turmoil is pushing both businesses and workers towards a greater reliance on freelancing.

Americans are increasingly turning to these flexible jobs and choosing to become their own bosses, rather than search for a traditional 9 to 5 in a soft labor market. And one in every three companies plans to utilize more independent contractors to meet their changing needs, according to research firm Gartner.

It’s time for lawmakers to support this growing share of the workforce by providing freelancers with the same protections that salaried employees have long enjoyed.

As we honor the nation's labor force, it's impossible to ignore the fact that freelancers are helping drive the economy's recovery — and they'll continue to boost the economy long after the pandemic ends. It's time for lawmakers to support this growing share of the workforce by providing freelancers with the same protections that salaried employees have long enjoyed.

Freelancers are already an indispensable and growing part of our labor force. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the 5.8 million freelancers in the top 30 U.S. markets contributed roughly $150 billion to the economy. In those regions, the number of freelancers grew by 15 percent between 2012 and 2017. 
Far from halting this progress, COVID-19 has accelerated this shift towards a freelance-centric economy.

It’s time for lawmakers to acknowledge freelancers’ value by including them in safety net programs.

Forty percent of freelancers said their workloads have either remained consistent or increased. Over half predicted that demand will increase following COVID-19. Activity on popular freelance platforms has spiked significantly in the past several months.
And given the uncertainties about the future, many companies need cost-effective ways to fulfill their evolving business needs. Freelancers' flexibility and unique skillsets make them well-equipped to meet that demand.
Consider a small business trying to weather the storm of the pandemic by expanding their online presence. It doesn't make sense for a local bookstore or restaurant to pay someone full-time to put together a single website. Most small firms don't need a full-fledged marketing department either — but they do need help regaining customers after months of closures and lockdowns. Freelancers can step in and provide those services.

Independent workers can help teachers navigate their virtual classrooms, too. With the fate of many of America's schools still uncertain, a number of districts are considering in-person and online hybrid models — a new concept to most instructors. A freelancer who specializes in STEM and online instruction can consult with teachers to help them navigate this new terrain.
Our country's economic revival is clearly linked to the success of these workers. So, it's time for lawmakers to acknowledge freelancers' value by including them in safety net programs.
They can start by making unemployment benefits for freelance workers permanent. Congress only temporarily extended these benefits to freelancers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which will expire at the end of the year. Ensuring access to these benefits long after COVID-19 abates would make the new freelance economy less precarious.
An economy supported by independent workers also requires reforms to the nation's health care system. Right now, roughly half of Americans enroll in employer-sponsored health plans. Freelancers generally aren't eligible for those tax-advantaged benefits.
One way to provide more — and better — insurance options for independent workers is by shoring up the Affordable Care Act, which made it easier for freelancers to get coverage through online insurance exchanges. The law isn't perfect. But there's no reason that Republicans and Democrats shouldn't be able to work together to make the exchanges work better.
Expanding access to affordable continuing education is also a necessity. Although acquiring new skills and knowledge in one's field is essential to competing as an independent professional, only a quarter of today's freelancers have used existing educational resources. Student loan forgiveness programs would make using these resources much more affordable and accessible.
Finally, since freelancers — and a significant portion of full-time employees, too — work remotely, an internet connection is obviously invaluable. Working from home is set to become the new normal for many folks. Yet, over 20 million Americans still lack access to reliable internet. Lawmakers can close that gap by funding the expansion of our country's broadband infrastructure. 
When Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882, the typical American worker may have spent their days on a farm or factory floor. But nearly 140 years later, our workforce looks drastically different.

COVID-19 accelerated a freelance revolution that'd been gaining strength for years, and it's never been clearer that these workers are a critical component of the U.S. labor force.
Policymakers can ensure the rise in freelancing leads to a vibrant economic recovery — by finally giving freelancers the basic security they deserve.Brent Messenger is vice president of public policy & community engagement at Fiverr.


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