I perused letters in the Sunday Dialogue section of The Times yesterday from my iPhone.
Now I’m hot under the collar.
These are letters from readers on helping women “lean in,” and the extent to which an employer’s provisions to assist women in the workforce assist us all as a society, and of course, help women earn their living and advance.
Why am I peeved?
Sunday Dialogue at The Times
There’s discussion of expanding FMLA.*
There’s indignant mention of men presumed to be less involved in parenting. There’s a reference to middle- and low-income workers in fear of losing their jobs if they take a day off to care for a sick family member.
There’s fuming over compensation issues from a corporate manager at a large firm, resentful that he puts in a 70-hour week while others take time off for a kid’s soccer game. There’s sputtering over the possibility that additional “benefits” might come with a raise in payroll taxes.
All of this, of course, assumes employment, or rather an employment relationship, which leads me to conclude that we’re hijacking critical conversation by cloaking it in gender politics. This isn’t to say that women don’t pay a disproportionate price when it comes to juggling work and family.
Hello? 1099 Workers, Do You Have a Voice?
In a nutshell: When we exclusively tie so-called “social benefits” like health care, disability, time off when sick or caring for a family member (FMLA*), or unemployment to those with a technical “employment relationship,” we ignore the millions of Americans who are independent workers.
Of course we need to look at FMLA, at expanding it where it makes sense and recognizing its limitations (and complexity). But by viewing the reality that women give birth, people get sick, someone has to raise the children and care for the elderly as purely employer responsibilities when an “employment relationship” exists is ludicrous.
Basic care is part of a social fabric that ought to be available to all, and we’re missing the point.
Leaning in is irrelevant in the larger scheme of discussions that exempt millions of workers who do not benefit from an employment relationship. The name of the game appears to be copping out, or possibly blanking out. In the long run, we’re certainly losing out.
Why Do I Care?
I am, and have been, one of those contract, freelance, independent, or portfolio workers – pick the terminology you’d like – in other words, without an employment relationship as defined by the law (FLSA**) and consequently, without any of the “employment” protections discussed.
Many of my friends fall into the same (leaky) boat.
I am not an independent or freelancer by choice; I am a non-employee by circumstance, as I can only imagine that millions of Americans are. In other words, casualties of the economy or other life events or both, ultimately dropping us into the netherworld that sits beyond the boundaries of these lofty and theoretical discussions of “benefits.”
Yes, I’m a freelance writer. (You’d be appalled at the puny amounts that pays, when it pays.)
Yes, I’m a consultant. (When I get those gigs and use those skills, the relief is palpable, but the issues are no less dramatic.)
Think Financial Fear Doesn’t Take a Toll?
Here’s my reality, and one that’s familiar to millions of Americans. I live in constant financial fear (as do many of my peers); I am always one phone call away from disaster and thus, constantly in “search mode” just in case, and simultaneously juggling as many clients as I can. This means I generally work seven days a week, hedging against the periods when there are few (or no) clients, despite constantly nursing my various pipelines.
This is not a complaint; it is a fact of my life and has been for 10+ years. But do we think this doesn’t take its toll on family life (marriage and divorce), that unrelenting stress doesn’t impact health or the quality of our parenting, that it doesn’t degrade job performance? Doesn’t all of this instability ripple throughout society?
And yes, over the years since divorce and layoff hit simultaneously, I have repeatedly tried to secure employment over contracting or consulting, and employment in addition to contracting and consulting.
No go. You know… over-educated, overqualified, over 45… raising two kids on my own, not free to move or to travel, subject to “ex” skirmishes in the background, and we’ll leave it at that.
I’m here, I survived, I’m one of the lucky ones though I continue to fight for financial survival and consequently, I feel it’s essential to speak up. I also know I’m in excellent company.
How Many Independent Workers Are There in the U.S.?
Just how much company might I have when it comes to those who are independent workers?
Here are a few facts, or at least – data, which you can interpret as you will.
- This 2011 source says there are 16 million independent workers in the U.S.
- Reporting in early 2013 projects that 40% of the U.S. workforce will be independents by 2020. That’s just over six years off.
- In case you’re wondering, the U.S. civilian labor force is roughly 155 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 40% of that is 62 million. It’s a big number, don’t you think?
A projected number of 62 million American workers with no employment protections. Oh right. We can’t worry about that. We’re still untangling our non-universal healthcare options…
The Independent Worker’s Flexibility
The first few years I was working as an independent, I used to joke that I loved the flexibility. I was free to set my own hours – basically, “any variation of 24/7 I could come up with.”
At this stage, I don’t find my own joke particularly amusing any longer.
Incidentally, the first source I cite, from MBO Partners (2011), describes the independent workforce as:
… motivated, resilient, talented and successful workers who are taking charge of their lives by choosing to work independently.
That sounds rousing, doesn’t it? 16 million enjoy uncertainty when it comes to income, picking up the tab of both employee and employer portions of social security tax, no access to any employer-subsidized paid time off, FMLA, disability, life insurance, health insurance, or unemployment benefits if they get “the call.”
I wonder what meds they’re taking. I may need some.
Or perhaps the individuals concerned have spouses with an employment relationship, though not that many of my “employed” friends feel secure these days either.
The “Choice” of the Independent Worker
The report goes on to say:
… Debunking a popular misconception that workers are forced into independence due to job loss or lack of alternatives, more than half of independent workers (55%) say it was their proactive choice to become an independent worker.
So, if we take that as true, 45% are not independent workers by choice. That would be 7.2 million people using their 16 million figure. However, if we consider that 40% of the workforce will be independent in six years time and we apply that (conservative?) percentage, are we talking about a potential estimate of 45% of 62 million people? that’s a whopping 27.9 million people.
Of course, it’s hard to know exactly who or what we’re talking about, as this source estimates 16 million in 2011, and a Kelly (Services) survey estimates that 44% of Americans (in 2011) are categorized as “free agents.”***
That’s 68 million workers. So somewhere in between 16 million and 68 million is a figure we could rely on?
Independent Contractors, Free Agents, Freelancers…
I’m no statistician and don’t claim to be. I’m no economist and again, I don’t claim to be. I’m trying to make sense of what I read, not to mention what I don’t.
I am, nonetheless, like those in employment relationships, subject to occasionally getting sick or being injured in an accident, would have benefited from even a small amount of coverage rather than dropping into a financial black hole, would have benefited from a few days off now and then (and in decent years was able to take a few), have had children to raise, have needed child care in order to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, and have struggled with periods of unemployment.
Why are workers like myself – millions of us who are deemed non-employees, some legally defined as independent contractors**** – left out of these discussions?
Nice term for a wide range of working scenarios, some of which meet the actual criteria intended by the term. More likely, included is a scandalous practice of hiring contractors and freelancers with the carrot of potential employment (that doesn’t materialize), the propaganda of freedom and flexibility, and a reality that is fraught with stress, waste, and heavily weighted in favor of the “employing” party.
Without national policies that afford social benefits to all, and yes, I would include universal healthcare in that mix, and without disenfranchising those who do not benefit from an “employment relationship,” we’re kidding ourselves if we think we won’t widen the general “misery” gap in this country.
The fact is, the practice of employers hiring contractors provides many advantages… to the employers. Among them, may I cite from Legal Zoom**** on its explanation of employees versus independent contractors?
When a worker is an employee, employers must pay state and federal unemployment tax, social security tax and workers compensation/disability premiums to a State Insurance Fund. When a worker is an independent contractor, the hiring party is not required to make any of these payments.
I’d say that might explain at least a bit of the trend toward fewer employment relationships, don’t you think? And where does that leave the non-employees?
Listen. I’m well aware there are legitimate reasons (beyond greed) that employers utilize contractors rather than employees. Seasonal hiring is one. The strain of start-up and growth for small firms is another. Temporary staffing for a new product or service you’re piloting rather than committing to may be a third. But I’m hard-pressed to comprehend how situations like these justify the tens of millions of workers we’re talking about.
Gender Issues Have Their Place, But…
Naturally, untangling our social issues – childcare, education, healthcare, elder care, institutional bias that affects many segments of the population – doesn’t come easily, quickly, or with a simple guidebook. Nor should we pretend that workforce issues are purely gender issues, when we’re ignoring tens of millions of people who fall outside the framework of “helping women lean in,” much less making things more manageable for families or young people.
Of course gender politics are at play, but it’s about so much more than that. These are economic issues, humanitarian issues, political issues as a whole and a matter of cultural values – or lack thereof.
Let’s stop pretending. And shame on you, New York Times, for the lack of inclusion or consideration of what Kelly Services refers to as 35% of the worldwide population (cited by Forbes***), working without a traditional employment relationship. Let’s stop leaving a massive and rapidly growing segment of the population out of the picture by restricting the discussion to laws that depend on employers, rather than coming to grips with what it means to be a civilized country.
*The Family Medical Leave Act is unpaid, job-protected leave for specific events (birth, adoption, medical treatments, etc.), which applies only under certain circumstances, but requires an “employer” of a certain size, and employee hours / tenure at the organization to qualify.
**Fair Labor Standards Act
***Although my first cited source projected 40% of Americans by 2020, Kelly Services 2011 Free Agent Survey found “44% of American workers across all industries, when asked, classify themselves as free agents,” in other words, without traditional full-time employment, in 2011. Note that figure equates to 68 million US workers.
****Definition of Independent Contractor, via LegalZoom.
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