The Gig Is Up

For flex­i­bil­ity-lov­ing pro­fes­sion­als flock­ing to Van­cou­ver’s cre­ative in­dus­tries, self em­ploy­ment, con­tract work and part-time jobs are part of the deal. But life in the gig econ­omy leaves many work­ers with­out a safety net. What hap­pens when they fall?

Vancouver Magazine - - Con­tents - Jes­sica Bar­rett by John Hol­croft il­lus­tra­tion by

Free­lanc­ing may be the fu­ture of work, but life in the gig econ­omy means many work­ers are with­out a safety net. What hap­pens when they fall?

by the stan­dards of most hu­man re­sources man­agers, Adrian Sin­clair’s job-hunt­ing style is like a step-by-step guide to ca­reer sui­cide. In in­ter­views, the 35-year-old event plan­ner is frank about his chal­lenges with punc­tu­al­ity and his pref­er­ence to work off-site, and has, on more than one oc­ca­sion, ac­tively pe­ti­tioned to down­grade aper­ma­nent po­si­tion to a con­tract gig.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the time he in­ter­viewed for a part­time job with the Mu­seum of Van­cou­ver, or­ga­niz­ing soirees and hap­pen­ings to pro­mote their ro­tat­ing ex­hibits. “They were ask­ing for a21-hour-aweek po­si­tion, where I’d be there three days a week. I kept say­ing, ‘I’ll work eight hours a week for you on-site and an­other eight hours a week for you off-site—or as much as you need—as acon­trac­tor.’”

He didn’t get the job. But four months later the mu­seum called him up to take ad­van­tage of his pro­posal, with no guar­an­tee Sin­clair would get amin­i­mum num­ber of hours each week. He was stoked. “I was like, great!”

If you’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion to labour mar­ket news in the last few years, you’ll be fa­mil­iar with the term “pre­car­i­ous work.” The catch-all phrase en­com­passes the part-time, tem­po­rary and con­tract gigs that have com­prised the ca­reers of a grow­ing num­ber of Cana­di­ans since the 1980s, when com­pa­nies be­gan elim­i­nat­ing full-time jobs—and all the se­cu­rity, ben­e­fits and pen­sions that came with them—in favour of hir­ing con­trac­tors and con­sul­tants. The cost­sav­ing cor­po­rate mea­sures

hit high gear dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion of 2008 with a “job­less re­cov­ery” in the years since giv­ing rise to an en­tirely new class of worker. Of­ten, the so-called pre­cariat are por­trayed as dis­en­fran­chised young peo­ple locked out of the tra­di­tional labour mar­ket and left to grap­ple with ter­mi­nal un­cer­tainty. But in­Van­cou­ver, where many work­ers, likeSin­clair, want to work in con­tract-based cre­ative in­dus­tries or cre­ate their own projects al­to­gether, a life built around bal­anc­ing gigs isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the raw end of a bad deal; it’s part of the ap­peal.

“The city mar­kets it­self as acre­ative city—it wants to be that,” says Sin­clair, who these days co-runs an event plan­ning com­pany that helps pro­duce large-scale events such as the Van­cou­ver Mu­ral Fes­ti­val. He also teaches part-time at SFU’s City Stu­dio and en­joys aflex­i­ble sched­ule that al­lows for hob­bies like the drop-in freestyle rap ses­sions he some­times runs. The combo earns him about $40,000 a year be­fore tax—above the pro­vin­cial me­dian in­come for in­di­vid­u­als. “Part of it is ev­ery­one is drink­ing the Kool-Aid, which is fine. I’m happy to put some bub­bly wa­ter with that and drink it down.”

That may bode well for the city’s rep­u­ta­tion as a place where peo­ple value pas­sion over pay­cheques, but it also has pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture of a city that is in­creas­ingly fu­elled by free­lancers. “The Lower Main­land is, I think, par­tic­u­larly at­tuned to this shift in pre­car­ity for work­ers be­cause of the types of sec­tors here—that’s tech, that’s the maker econ­omy, that’s arts and cul­ture, the ser­vice sec­tor,” says Darcy Ver­meulen, a B.C. spokesper­son for the Ur­ban Work­ers Project, a non­par­ti­san, non-profit group launched in 2016 to or­ga­nize and ad­vo­cate for pre­car­i­ous work­ers. “And these are the good jobs, the jobs that peo­ple want.”

But sup­port­ing an econ­omy built around the boom and bust cy­cles of small start-ups, ser­vice work­ers and in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors is tricky busi­ness. Many of the city’s work­ers are with­out paid sick days, health and den­tal ben­e­fits, ma­ter­nity leave or ac­cess to Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance, which, Ver­meulen wor­ries, will cost us all down the road. An aware­ness cam­paign done by the Ur­ban Work­ers Project re­vealed pre­car­i­ous work­ers make ma­jor sac­ri­fices to com­pen­sate for their lack of se­cu­rity. They put off rou­tine health checks such as eye or den­tal ex­ams that aren’t cov­ered by MSP, or de­lay or forgo hav­ing chil­dren, and many do not have fi­nan­cial backup in the event of ill­ness or in­jury. “I like to say these are the peo­ple who are one bi­cy­cle ac­ci­dent away from not be­ing able to pay their rent,” he says.

With nearly 60 per­cent of the jobs cre­ated across the coun­try in 2015 cat­e­go­rized as self-em­ploy­ment, ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada, this seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion is poised only to grow, cre­at­ing an ur­gent need to up­date em­ploy­ment leg­is­la­tion to re­flect this re­al­ity. That’s al­ready hap­pen­ing in On­tario, which is re­view­ing its labour laws and where the Ur­ban Work­ers Project is push­ing for changes that would make it eas­ier for con­trac­tors, con­sul­tants and free­lancers to union­ize, as well as give them greater ac­cess to Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance, in­clud­ing ma­ter­nity and parental leave, and other ben­e­fits.

Ver­meulen would like to see the same thing hap­pen in B.C., which leads the coun­try in per capita rates of small busi­ness, most of which are run by sole pro­pri­etors, and where more than one in five peo­ple—22 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion—is self-em­ployed, ac­cord­ing to Small Busi­ness BC. There is al­ready some prece­dent on how the province could ad­just its leg­is­la­tion, says Ver­meulen, not­ing that con­tract work­ers in B.C.’s film and TV sec­tors are able to union­ize, amodel that could be ex­tended to other in­dus­tries.

Mean­while, some cities are tak­ing con­crete steps to im­prove life for pre­car­i­ous work­ers. In Oc­to­ber 2016, New York City coun­cil passed a bill re­quir­ing com­pa­nies who use con­trac­tors to pay for work in full by a set dead­line or face pos­si­ble court ac­tion and hefty fines. The city’s comp­trol­ler gen­eral also in­tro­duced the New York Nest Egg, a plan that would al­low small busi­nesses and self-em­ployed in­di­vid­u­als to buy into mu­nic­i­pally sup­ported pen­sion pro­grams.

It’s a move Van­cou­ver city coun­cil­lor An­drea Reimer says could serve as in­spi­ra­tion for Van­cou­ver as it scram­bles to re­spond to the re­sults of sev­eral decades of work­force change and the suc­cess of the city’s own brand­ing. While she ad­mits that pro­vin­cial laws gov­ern­ing mu­nic­i­pal pen­sion plans would make a New York-style nest egg dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment here, “it should at least be a dis­cus­sion that we’re hav­ing,” she says.

Ac­cord­ing to Reim er, gov­ern­ments of all stripes have been slow to re­al­ize the way work has fun­da­men­tally changed, an­dit’s not just labour codes that need ama­jor over­haul. The way we plan city in­fra­struc­ture and ser­vices also needs to change. All of Van­cou­ver’s “guts and feath­ers”—the pipes, zon­ing by­laws and tran­sit cor­ri­dors—were cre­ated to serve an econ­omy that re­lied heav­ily on re­sources and in­dus­trial pro­cess­ing. That is all part of a by gone era. “Fast-for­ward to the mod­ern econ­omy and very lit­tle about that makes sense any­more,” she says.

For in­stance, Reimer says it’s no longer nec­es­sary to keep a stark sep­a­ra­tion be­tween busi­ness and res­i­den­tial dis­tricts or main­tain in­dus­trial ar­eas that shut down at 5 p.m. But fig­ur­ing out how to ad­just city plan­ning to sup­port what she calls the “in­no­va­tion econ­omy” is chal­leng­ing be­cause there isn’t amech­a­nism to track how peo­ple are con­fig­ur­ing their work­ing lives.

“These are the peo­ple who are one bi­cy­cle ac­ci­dent away from not be­ing able to pay their rent.”

——DARCY VER­MEULEN

Reimer sus­pects close to half of Van­cou­ver’s pop­u­la­tion works out of places that aren’t li­censed to con­duct busi­ness in—whether they make the rounds at lo­cal cof­fee shops with their lap­tops, write re­ports at the kitchen ta­ble or run maker stu­dios in the “flex space” of their con­dos. This is rel­e­vant not be­cause the city wants to crack down on peo­ple work­ing in­de­pen­dently with­out a busi­ness li­cense, but be­cause it needs that in­for­ma­tion in or­der to up­date its plan­ning poli­cies.

“Even if you have a job, that doesn’t mean you have a phys­i­cal place to un­der­take it in, and we do not build our hous­ing stock with that con­sid­er­a­tion in mind,” says Reimer, adding that the city has con­vened an in­no­va­tion econ­omy round­table to study how it can bet­ter sup­port mod­ern work­ers through land-use plan­ning. But she ad­mits the process is long over­due and tack­les only some parts of acom­pli­cated is­sue. “We’ve only just started think­ing about where your pen­sion is go­ing to come from, or how we’re go­ing to pro­tect you when you’re sick, or any of those things.”

Of­ten, many peo­ple who will­ingly opt for those un­con­ven­tional work­ing ar­range­ments aren’t think­ing about them at all, says Chris­tian Saint Cyr, aformer ca­reer coun­sel­lor and in­de­pen­dent labour con­sul­tant who pub­lishes the BC Labour Mar­ket Re­port. While chang­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties around work and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment have made self-em­ploy­ment more en­tic­ing for peo­ple who want au­ton­omy over their sched­ules and their work, many still don’t ad­e­quately plan for the long term. “That’s a huge prob­lem with self-em­ploy­ment, gen­er­ally,” he says. “You have lots of 50- and 60-year-old peo­ple out there who con­tinue to work be­cause they have a mort­gage on their house . . . and they haven’t done that plan­ning.”

Alexan­dra Sa­muel may well wind up as one of them. But the 45-year-old free­lance tech­nol­ogy writer and strate­gist isn’t fazed by the prospect of work­ing for­ever. Al­ways one to value flex­i­bil­ity and mean­ing­ful work over sta­bil­ity, Sa­muel has spent much of her ca­reer work­ing for larger or­ga­ni­za­tions as both acon­trac­tor and an em­ployee, as well as for her­self. She ran so­cial me­dia con­sult­ing com­pany So­cial Sig­nal for five years with her hus­band, a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist and speech­writer who has also spent large chunks of time work­ing as an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor. These days, she’s free­lanc­ing full-time. Sa­muel agrees Van­cou­ver in­vites a cer­tain breed of en­trepreneur with its fo­cus on lifestyle, but there’s an­other rea­son many peo­ple choose to strike out on their own. With a lack of cor­po­rate lad­ders to climb, pro­fes­sion­als in their mid- to late ca­reers of­ten find they ei­ther need to leave town for big­ger cen­tres or go it alone. “There aren’t that many jobs in Van­cou­ver for some­body at my level,” she says.

While they’ve con­tem­plated mov­ing to San Fran­cisco or Toronto, Sa­muel says she and her hus­band, who have two school-aged chil­dren, have de­cided to stay put. Run­ning their own busi­ness has come with trade-offs— for in­stance, Sa­muel has never had a ma­ter­nity leave and was back at work lit­er­ally the day after giv­ing birth to her youngest child. But work­ing from home and hir­ing a nanny made the sit­u­a­tion man­age­able, even prefer­able. “Ba­bies are a lot of work, but they’re bor­ing,” she says. “You might as well build some web­sites.”

Through the years, the fam­ily has had pe­ri­odic ac­cess to ex­tended ben­e­fits when ei­ther part­ner has taken the oc­ca­sional “real job,” but they’ve had some long pe­ri­ods where den­tal check­ups and eye ex­ams have been paid out of pocket or through a pri­vately pur­chased in­sur­ance plan. For Sa­muel, the fi­nan­cial cost is out­weighed by the free­dom she has to fo­cus on work that she loves, as well as the flex­i­bil­ity to sup­port her son, who has autism. How­ever, she ac­knowl­edges that with­out long-term dis­abil­ity cov­er­age, the fam­ily is in­cred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble to ill­ness or in­jury. “If we get sick, we’re screwed,” she says. Sim­i­larly, there’s not much in the way of re­tire­ment sav­ings. “We have done noth­ing. We have no fi­nan­cial cush­ion,” says Sa­muel, al­though she adds the cou­ple does own their home in a Kit­si­lano du­plex, and as an only child she’ll likely re­ceive some in­her­i­tance from fam­ily. But that doesn’t ex­actly add up to a re­tire­ment plan, and Sa­muel has adopted a Zen-like at­ti­tude to­ward the re­al­ity that she may be work­ing for­ever; in fact, she’s hope­ful her best earn­ing years lie ahead of her. It all goes back to the ma­jor perk in be­ing the ar­chi­tect of your own ca­reer, she says: when you like your work, you don’t mind the idea of do­ing it in­def­i­nitely. “Real­is­ti­cally, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to re­tire and I don’t re­ally care.”

Adrian Sin­clair seems equally at peace with a murky fi­nan­cial fu­ture. Run­ning his busi­ness with a part­ner, An­drea Cur­tis, af­fords some de­gree of in­sur­ance against life’s ups and downs—one part­ner can con­tinue to run the busi­ness in the event the other needs time off. But Sin­clair has also been ex­per­i­ment­ing with ways to build up eq­uity be­yond pri­vate pen­sion plans or real es­tate, which he doubts he’ll ever be able to af­ford. Lately, he’s been buy­ing eth­i­cal stocks and ex­per­i­ment­ing with the mar­ket in or­der to learn how to ex­tend his sav­ings. “Be­sides that, if I ever get a lump sum from work, I buy pre­cious met­als.” It may sound quirky, but for Sin­clair, be­ing will­ing to think out­side the box in or­der to make things work is just part of Van­cou­ver’s civic iden­tity.

“Any­one who is will­ing to stay is a hus­tler—is able to deal with a lot of un­cer­tainty,” he says.

“Real­is­ti­cally, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to re­tire and I don’t re­ally care.” ——ALEXAN­DRA SA­MUEL

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