RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All this week we're taking a look at the growing significance of freelance work in our economy. Some 32 million Americans now rely on freelance or contract work for their primary income. That's according to an NPR/Marist Poll released this week. And fewer than half of these workers receive benefits like sick leave or retirement savings. NPR's Yuki Noguchi explores what that means for the future of the social safety net.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Matt Nelson has learned to love his freelance Web developer life. It allows him to split time between pursuing passions and making a living. But it didn't start out that way.
MATT NELSON: I didn't get into freelancing personally by choice, you know? I could not find a job for the life of me. I couldn't get an email back or a phone call for the life of me.
NOGUCHI: Nelson volunteers as leader of the Madison Wisconsin chapter of Spark, a networking group started by the Freelancers Union. His group is made up of 350 varied freelancers.
NELSON: Lawyers, realtors. We've got a guy that does bug farming consulting. We had an astrobiologist.
NOGUCHI: They exchange tips and share stories, often of the indignities they suffer.
NELSON: I was stiffed by an NGO that was out of state for not quite enough money to make it worth my while to go to small claims court Nebraska. (Laughter). And, as a freelancer, that's tough.
NOGUCHI: Nelson, who is 41, says he and his freelance and contractor friends often feel they're flying solo without support to fall back on.
NELSON: We really don't have much of a social safety net. And, you know, that's terrifying.
NOGUCHI: This is a vexing problem for freelancers and policymakers. Virginia Senator Mark Warner worries workers without benefits will strain tight public budgets even more. He says freelancers ought to be able to get benefits that they can keep, regardless where they work. Warner sponsored a bill to encourage experimentation with those types of programs.
MARK WARNER: If we don't have a social contract for this workforce, if we don't have social insurance that moves with the workers then I feel like the economic discontent and economic insecurity that comes from working with no safety net under you would rise dramatically.
NOGUCHI: Rene Flores, a Los Angeles freight truck driver, is living that reality. Trucking deregulation turned most drivers into contractors four decades ago. But Flores says the company didn't treat him as a free agent.
RENE FLORES: (Through interpreter) They always assigned me the work they wanted to do. They would always send me where they wanted to go. They always set the price. I never did.
NOGUCHI: Being a contractor, he says, only meant he had to pay for his own gas and truck repairs, and the company didn't give him health insurance, which became a huge problem when he fell on the job three years ago.
FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).
NOGUCHI: Flores developed a giant hernia but endured the pain without medical care. He complained about the lack of benefits in a newspaper interview and got fired. He took a new job but found he couldn't work without surgery. So Flores borrowed $10,000 from friends to get a cheaper surgery in Mexico. He returned to work still bandaged and bleeding.
FLORES: (Through interpreter) I'm also worried about my family. I don't have the resources to keep going for two more weeks and pay my rent and my bills.
NOGUCHI: The toll of insecurity isn't just financial.
CAROLINA SALAS: Being a freelancer, you really have to, really have to be on top of your emotional and mental health.
NOGUCHI: Carolina Salas is 32 and freelances in New York City helping medical practices attract new patients. Salas says the stress and demands of freelance work pinched her sciatic nerve, immobilizing her for six months.
SALAS: As a contractor, the expectations of you are much higher than if you were an employee. They're moving so quickly, and they have so little consideration or awareness for you that they sometimes forget that you're actually human.
NOGUCHI: She says defending one's humanity is hard. Clients control the purse, after all, and there are fewer legal protections for contractors compared to full-time employees.
SALAS: People are not talking about this because people say it's the sexy thing to do, everybody's doing it. It's, like, actually, no. If you just start talking to people and you start talking to them about their emotional state and their sense of self-worth, they'll tell you that they've taken a hit and that it's hard.
NOGUCHI: Salas emigrated from Venezuela and has freelanced for eight years. In that time she's learned to track her time and expenses, push back on unrealistic deadlines and save for retirement and emergencies. But she says not all freelancers are equally equipped.
SALAS: That is what concerns me because I come from a place where there was not much of a middle class, and I know what that looks like. And so I'm not saying that, you know, the United States is going in that direction, but I'm very familiar with inequality.
NOGUCHI: Those worries are not unfounded, says Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union.
SARA HOROWITZ: There are really big risks in freelancing because the income is so episodic and freelancers aren't entitled to unemployment insurance, and this is really bad for low-wage workers in particular.
NOGUCHI: Horowitz says freelancers need to band together. She's an advocate for things like union-sponsored health insurance. The Freelancers Union, for example, has offered it to its members for two decades.
HOROWITZ: The answer is to build this safety net that's universal for everybody, not to say, this is only for very low-wage workers, nor is it to say, this is for highly skilled professional workers, but actually, they're all going through this together.
NOGUCHI: The best antidote to fear, she says, is to create a new social safety net where freelancers can rely on each other. And with a growing group of tens of millions of Americans freelancing, she says, that's also a powerful voting bloc. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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