Good News, Freelancers: This Law Is About to Make Your Life Better


Once exclusively the domain of your older “graphic-designer” cousin with a massive Elliott Smith back tattoo and a trust fund, full-time freelancing is rapidly establishing itself in the labor pool, with 53 million  Americans--a.k.a. 34% of the total workforce--making their living as a contractor, working project-to-project, or working as part of the gig economy, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Freelancers Union. And the number of people looking to live that freelance dream is expected to grow at a rapid rate; by 2020, that percentage is expected to reach 50%.

There are many factors to consider before deciding to make that jump to freelancing full time, but a new piece of legislation in New York City is seeking to alleviate some of those concerns for its rapidly growing freelancer population. And it’s about time. Freelancers are generally tasked with not only being the talent, but being their own marketing, scheduling, human resources and billing department, and as you can probably guess from the name of the law--the Freelance Isn’t Free Act--one of the most persistent obstacles of freelancing is actually getting paid. In 2015, the Freelancer Union reported that 70% of freelancers in New York were having problems tracking down payment from clients and employers. Which makes the whole idea of freelancing great in theory, but a slog in reality.

Thus, one of the central pieces of legislation demands that for jobs paying $800 or more, freelancers must be paid either by a date specified in a contract (now required by the new law) or within 30 days of completion. The other major component is that it provides recourse for instances in which you get stiffed; within a timeframe of two years of nonpayment, a freelancer can report their employer to New York's Office of Labor Policy & Standards, who will send a letter to the offending party citing their breach of contract. If it goes to court, the law mandates double damages and attorney fees be awarded if the judge rules in the freelancer’s favor.

The other thing about being a freelancer though, is that going to court is prohibitively expensive; freelancers are generally not the type to keep a lawyer on retainer. To aid workers with getting the legal ball rolling in these instances, the Freelancers Union launched an app in conjunction with this law that will connect freelancers with attorneys who specialize in these kinds of claims.

That the labor pool will continue to skew toward “external workforces” and a “flex economy” is all but inevitable, and as such, it’s becoming increasingly important that freelancers remain vigilant about establishing protections for themselves. Because while you might be getting the benefit of dictating your own schedule and choosing your clients, the people who hire you are reaping the benefits of significantly reduced overhead. They don’t have to shell out for bennies like health insurance and retirement, and that means those are things freelancers need to take on themselves. This piece of legislation is a promising step in establishing some ground rules, but it’s the first of its kind and only applicable to those in New York City. Which means that for everyone else, it might be time to start thinking about rallying your own legislators and organizing on a local level.

Read the full Freelance Isn’t Free Act here and get the Freelancer’s Union app here.

-Deena Drewis