Albany Times Union
Freelancers need unemployment insurance, too
In February of 2020, I was feeling pretty good. Six years earlier, I’d struck it out as a freelance writer and had found a way to piece together a living, building a profile as an expert on sexual health and accruing bylines in publications from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan. After years of instability and routine layoffs, I felt like I finally had control over my destiny.
Then the pandemic hit, and the bottom fell out. The beat that had served me so well suddenly wasn’t a beat at all. No editor would run anything that wasn’t directly connected to the pandemic, and none of the expertise I’d gained over the years mattered anymore. Every morning, I sat at my desk searching for ways to connect my beat to the pandemic, and coming up empty — all while processing the same trauma as millions of other New Yorkers.
It was overwhelming, and it was compounded by a fluke of our nation’s labor laws: Unlike most New Yorkers, I didn’t have access to unemployment insurance.
Freelance workers like me are shut out from unemployment insurance. The Social Security Act of 1935, which set up our country’s UI system, left out nearly half of the nation’s workers, especially workers in low-wage, precarious industries.
In the decades since the Social Security Act passed, the structure of work has changed profoundly. Freelance work is growing more common by the day. A recent poll showed 56 percent of non-freelancers said they’d freelance in the future.
Yet our safety net hasn’t changed, leaving workers like me with few options in a crisis. And it’s not just freelancers: Scores of workers can’t get access to unemployment insurance — so-called “excluded” workers like undocumented workers, workers in reentry from incarceration, day laborers, street vendors and more.
This year, Albany has a chance to end these exclusions by passing the Unemployment Bridge Program (UBP), a transformational bill that would
finally give excluded workers access to unemployment compensation.
The bill builds on the 2021 Excluded Workers Fund, which provided life-changing aid to more than 130,000 workers, primarily undocumented workers, who were cut out from pandemic-era unemployment assistance. The UBP would cover a much broader set of workers, including freelancers, and make the support permanent.
The Unemployment Bridge Program would extend unemployment insurance to three classes of workers: The selfemployed, like freelance writers and street vendors; undocumented workers and workers in re-entry; and certain cash economy workers like domestic workers. If a worker loses significant income, they can apply, and if they qualify, they’d get a flat payment of $1,200/month, the same as the average state UI rate. More than 750,000 New Yorkers would be eligible, including an estimated 180,000 freelancers.
The program would be nothing short of lifechanging. It would mean a safety net when things get hard. If I were to lose contracts suddenly, I could take time to replace them with meaningful work, rather than scrambling for the lowest-hanging fruit.
And it would respond to a changing economy: Every day, we learn a new company turned what should be full-time jobs into contracts — nowhere more so than in the media industry.
This volatility doesn’t just put people out of a job. It also affects the choices a freelance worker makes. Especially after the pandemic, it pressures many freelance writers to take bottom-ofthe-barrel projects to make ends meet, rather than having the space to intentionally build their careers.
And we’re the lucky ones. Many other excluded workers, especially those working in industries rife with bad employers like day laborers, have to tolerate wage theft, harassment, and worse — because leaving an abusive employer means losing everything.
That’s why unemployment insurance is not a benefit; it’s an essential labor right.
A century ago, when exploitation was widespread, states began exploring UI programs to protect workers on the job, and a few years later, it became federal law. Now New York has a chance to be a national leader by updating our UI system for a radically different economy.
The pandemic taught us that at any moment, the bottom could drop out from under us. Instead of waiting for the next crisis to act — or waiting for the economy to get even more unpredictable — we need to provide everyone with a cushion of stability to rely on now. All labor has value, and it’s time we recognize it by passing the Unemployment Bridge Program.