Unequal Rights: Contract Workers Have Few Workplace Protections Across a diverse set of industries, contract work is booming, and that is raising concerns about a lack of anti-discrimination, harassment and other legal protections for those workers.

Unequal Rights: Contract Workers Have Few Workplace Protections

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Compared to people who are hired as employees, contract workers and freelancers have few legal rights in the U.S. For example, a contract worker doesn't have the right to sue for sexual harassment or gender discrimination. Workplace civil rights laws do not apply. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, tens of millions of workers occupy this gap in workplace laws.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: At age 18, Nina Irizarry worked under contract as a singer and dancer for a salsa band in New York City.

NINA IRIZARRY: I was training nearly every day. I would commute nearly two hours to my band practice.

NOGUCHI: Her band was on the cusp of signing a record deal when her manager started groping and harassing her.

IRIZARRY: It had a disastrous effect on my life - just trying to rebuild my life after.

NOGUCHI: A few years later, it happened again in a different job - this time with the grandfather of a child Irizarry was tutoring. She considered posting about it online. But Irizarry, now 33 and a freelance writer, says she decided against it.

IRIZARRY: I thought about it. And I was like, I don't want to post that on my social media. It can change your reputation.

NOGUCHI: There was no human resources person Irizarry could turn to. And as a contractor, she had no employer to sue.

IRIZARRY: I really wish I could have protected myself in both situations or just - I feel like I would have had a sense of agency and would have felt in control of my life.

NOGUCHI: Over the last century, full-time employment has been the norm. Now the independent workforce is on the rise. Industries as diverse as manufacturing, accounting, education and even warehouses are filling more positions with contract workers. In less than a decade, contract workers will outnumber employees. And this heightens concerns about gaps in the law that leave those workers potentially vulnerable. Caitlin Pearce is executive director of the Freelancers Union with 350,000 members.

CAITLIN PEARCE: You're cut out of a lot of the basic employment protections. And that can be everything from protection to make sure you're getting paid on time, protections against harassment, safe workplace, discrimination.

NOGUCHI: There are few workplace laws covering contract workers. One of them is a Civil War-era statute prohibiting race discrimination in contracts. Separately, New York City and three states - California, Washington and Pennsylvania - extend other workplace protections to contractors. Employers argue contractors control their own working conditions. As free agents, they need fewer protections. Camille Olson is an attorney representing employers.

CAMILLE OLSON: The same protections, where the supervisor and the manager control the workplace - control the worker, is not relevant to the independent contractor relationship.

NOGUCHI: But some question whether many of today's contractors enjoy true independence and control over their own work. David Weil is dean at the Heller School at Brandeis University and a former Labor Department official under President Obama.

DAVID WEIL: Most people don't recognize how much the workplace has changed.

NOGUCHI: Weil says that many employers are simply labeling more jobs as contract positions in order to shift the cost and risk onto workers. Washington, D.C., Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton wants to change that. This year she introduced a proposal to extend discrimination protections to contract workers.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Perhaps employers are confused. Perhaps they're taking advantage of the fact that contract employees aren't so well-defined in the law. But for those reasons, we need to clear up what a worker is in the United States of America today.

NOGUCHI: There's no government tracking of contract workers' complaints precisely because for the most part they can't bring them. Natalie Franke says this lack of data masks a big problem. Franke manages the user community at HoneyBook, a site for freelancers in creative fields like design or photography. A January survey found over half of HoneyBook members experienced sexual harassment.

NATALIE FRANKE: There is fear around how the client will respond. There is fear now around even, you know, reviews.

NOGUCHI: Franke says many stick it out and endure their pain privately.

FRANKE: The only other individuals who would understand what they're going through are competitors.

NOGUCHI: Franke urges freelancers to do what they can - seek emotional support and include anti-harassment and discrimination clauses in their future contracts. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.


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