Freelancing and self-employment is like riding a wave as projects and jobs come and go. In the past week, the wave crashed as never before on millions of Americans.
Many Minnesotans who make a living on their own are now floating around in shock.
“You ride the wave. You have some months where you are busy and some months where you are not,” says Kelsey Shaw, who left a job at a marketing agency a year ago to become a freelancer who businesses hire to help them navigate social media and events.
“This is one of those months,” Shaw said. “However long this tunnel is I’m hoping to see the light.”
Freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers, “solopreneurs” and salespeople relying on commission have been the first to lose opportunities and income by decisions to close down large portions of the U.S. economy to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans work full time in such jobs, a figure that grew about 50% in the decade after the 2008 recession, federal jobs data shows. Another 10% of American workers get a second income by doing contract or gig work part time.
These jobs can be lucrative in good times and give workers a lot of control and flexibility in their lives. But when downturns come, they feel the pain first. Many independent workers are also on their own for employer benefits such as life and health insurance. Sick pay, for most, is no pay.
Eliana Reyes, who last year quit a job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to devote all her time to work as a model, actor and filmmaker, is confronting the downside of self-employment for the first time.
“It was a leap of faith a year ago to quit my job,” she said. “Now with all my future bookings canceled, I’m somewhere between remaining calm and being near panic.”
Sierra Williams, who works as a doula, called a client Wednesday to say she couldn’t support her during labor because new coronavirus policies meant she couldn’t enter the hospital. Some hospitals in the region have limited the number of additional people in birth rooms or restricted access to in-house, on-call doulas, she said.
While she could ask clients to go to more accommodating hospitals, Williams said that could just add to the existing stress of giving birth.
“It’s already hard on me because I am an independent person and my checks come sporadically,” Williams said. “And I’m a single mother with five children so I’m trying to stay positive that this will end.”
Two weeks ago, a conference that Precious Wallace, a graphic designer and event coordinator, was scheduled to attend got postponed because of coronavirus. Then, Wallace heard from clients that events she was supposed to work on were canceled.
“It became a domino effect where people said, ‘Oh snap, we don’t know when this event is going to happen,’ ” she said. “It put everything on hold.”
But Wallace, who has been finding design work since she started making nightclub fliers at age 16, is optimistic that she can pivot. She has considered teaching design webinars and workshops.
“Unless you have retainer contracts you might have to find another way to get creative and make some money,” said Wallace, who owns King P. Studio and an events and community platform for women of color called Art in Many Forms.
Many gig workers and independent contractors will have to find their own way forward because they are not eligible for unemployment benefits from the government.
Anthony Kasper, a Minneapolis disc jockey who’s had full-time work for five years, said it’s unlikely that he’ll get new jobs at nightclubs, parties, and sporting events anytime soon. With two months of savings and little debt, he decided to make music instead of spin it.
“I create electronic music called drum and bass where I can make streams on Spotify,” Kasper said. “I can crank out an EP or two. It may not pay off right away but it’s something. I haven’t thought beyond two months yet.”
Paul Diethelm, a guitarist in St. Cloud who is a member of the eight-person Fabulous Armadillos group, has coped with losing gigs and income due to snowstorms, fire and venues that close. This shutdown is different, he said.
“Any of us in the music world are used to living month-to-month, week-to-week or even hand-to-mouth, but nothing to this degree. It’s like a natural disaster.”
He may get some musicians together and perform online with an internet tip jar. “I haven’t figured out the logistics yet,” he said. But he added, “We have a pretty loyal audience in Minnesota that I think are waiting for us to entertain them.”
Reyes said she’s forcing herself to get beyond the shock and think creatively. She’s considering social network posting of live monologues, acting scenes, reading her poetry, and singing.
“I’m thinking of things I do that I can put out to the world and hope that some will feel compelled to donate to me.”
Millions of other Americans are now working from home, a disruptive and isolating shock of its own, but those people at least will continue to see a steady paycheck.
“I hope that people will remember that while they’re consuming entertainment at home, there’s a whole industry of people … who have nontraditional career paths,” Reyes said. “These are not hobbies. They’re our livelihood.”