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Temps with benefits

Ashley Milne-Tyte Dec 14, 2007

Temps with benefits

Ashley Milne-Tyte Dec 14, 2007


This week, dozens of freelance employees for MTV unplugged from their jobs and hit the streets of Manhattan in protest.

Freelancer 1: So let’s hear it!

Crowd: [cheering]

Freelancer 2: Let’s hear it for the writers!

Crowd: [cheering]

The network had announced plans to cut some of their benefits. One protestor named Brock says he’s had a full workload for more than a year.

Brock: To call us freelancers when we’re doing full-time work and then not give us full-time benefits, it just isn’t fair.

By Wednesday, MTV reversed course and said freelancers could at least keep their health plans.

But wait, you say: freelancers with bennies?

Most independent workers, the self-employed, contractors, temps and part-timers don’t get anything beyond a paycheck. But Ashley Milne-Tyte tells us there is a movement underway to make public policy more friendly to the lone worker.

These days no one expects a job for life, but many would like a job for more than a few months at a time. Production cycles have sped up over the past 20 years. Companies need to hire and fire more often, so they hire people on contract. Sara Horowitz is president of the New York-based Freelancers Union, which lobbies for independent workers. She says it’s fine for employers to have a flexible attitude to employees, but…

Sara Horowitz: What you can’t do is just whipsaw somebody through that without recognizing that they, the worker, needs to be able to account for that kind of flexibility with access to unemployment insurance, with a new kind of health insurance that stays with them rather than getting it from the job and same with retirement.

Freelancers Union has 56,000 members around the U.S. It offers benefits to independent workers, including health insurance in 31 states. Horowitz says getting a better deal for the self-employed isn’t all about going hat in hand to the government. The union is considering a plan to create an unemployment insurance fund for its members by having members pool some of their own resources.

Tate Hausman is a New York-based freelance consultant who works on progressive political campaigns. He is not a member of the union and he’s a bit skeptical of the idea.

Tate Hausman: In the sense that the psychology of a lot of freelancers, the reason that they are independent, is because they like the freedom and it’s kind of contradictory to being part of a collective and being part of a union.

30-year-old Hausman doesn’t need the Freelancers Union for health benefits because he gets those through his wife’s job. He’s done nicely in the three years since he went freelance, doubling his earnings to $90,000 and if he wants to change policy, he says he can do that through his work with campaigns or his political blog.

But not every self-employed person is so connected. Lisa Kelliher is a 42-year-old private care assistant in Fall River, Massachusetts. She cooks and cleans for clients in their homes, dresses them and gives them physical therapy. One of her employers is 90-year-old Annette Sampson.

Lisa Kelliher: OK, now I want you to lay down.

Annette Sampson: Oh ya do?

Kelliher: Yes, I do!

Sampson: That’s a howl… that’s a howl…

Kelliher earns $10.84 an hour. She works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Hers is one of the fastest growing jobs in the country. Many workers are independent contractors like her with no health or vacation benefits. Still, she says, she wouldn’t do anything else.

Kelliher: I love people. I do. Just bringing something better out of a bad situation. To me, myself, that’s rewarding. Just to see someone happy, you know, that’s fulfilling in itself.

Kelliher doesn’t really see herself as part of the wider group of self-employed workers. She does identify with other private care assistants, a group that would love some access to benefits. This fall, she and many of her fellow care assistants in Massachusetts voted to become part of the Service Employees International Union.

No one could accuse Kelliher of not working hard, but some independent workers battle perception problems, especially if they work at home. Robert Trumbull is a labor studies expert at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Robert Trumbull: I think there’s always been a little suspicion of people who are not in an office or in a location where you can see when they arrive and when they leave and how many hours they were there.

And it’s tricky to get everyone to speak with one voice. Trumbull says the self-employed do such different jobs and they’re scattered all over the country.

Trumbull: It is not easy to organize people when they are not in one physical setting.

But Sara Horowitz of Freelancers Union is unfazed. She says sure, organizing independent types is like herding cats, but it can be done, particularly at the state level. And people want to be organized.

Sara Horowitz: People need one another very much to get work, to find out information, and if you think that you’d do better by being alone and calling up an insurance company rather than by being with tens of thousands of other people, you’re wrong.

After all, she says, the union successfully campaigned to reduce a New York City tax on the self-employed. She expects to clock up more victories like that in the future.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

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