Opinion: Making the case for a “Freelance isn’t free” law in New York

Legislation would give independent workers a right to a written contract, timely and full payment and protection from retaliation.

Director of the Freelancers Union Rafael Espinal.

Director of the Freelancers Union Rafael Espinal. Freelancers Union

Everywhere from luxury buildings on the Upper East Side to Amazon warehouses on Staten Island, New York workers are standing up for their rights and making huge gains. As head of the Freelancers Union, I stand in solidarity with all of these workers and their fight to be protected by a union that safeguards their protections. But often lost in the conversation are the millions of independent workers across this country who choose to work for themselves but have hardly any protections or recourse when they are exploited. 

Fortunately, New York State, the home to the first Amazon union in this country, has the solution to expand protections to a large segment of our workforce who exists largely out of our social safety net: the Freelance Isn’t Free Act sponsored by Senator Andrew Gounardes.

With 59 million freelancers in the United States, independent workers make up more than a third of the U.S. workforce. And, in 2020, despite the pandemic, freelancers contributed $1.2 trillion in earnings to our economy. In fact as a result of the pandemic, 12% of the U.S. workforce started freelancing. As more people move away from traditional employment, they are seeking the flexibility of independent work. 

Yet, for too long, this group of workers has gone without adequate protections. Freelancers often produce work without the security of a written contract, putting in long and hard hours for a client only to be told, “The check is in the mail,” or “You have to wait, we have a new accounting system.” We’ve heard horror story after horror story of workers delivering on their end of the agreement, with no recourse when their clients don’t pay. 

The pandemic has further highlighted this issue, as nonpayment became the No. 1 complaint our organization received from our members for projects they completed before the shutdowns. A recent study by the Independent Economy Council found that 74% of respondents are not getting paid on time while 59% are owed $50,000 or more for already completed work.

But with the Freelance Isn’t Free Law, independent workers will have a right to a written contract, timely and full payment and protection from retaliation. The law establishes penalties for violations of these rights, including statutory damages, double damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys’ fees and costs if a freelancer’s case goes to small claims court and wins. 

What’s more, there is precedent for this level of protection, right here in our state. In 2016, the New York City Council passed its landmark Freelance Isn’t Free Act (FIFA), which has been extremely successful in protecting freelancers and establishing legal guardrails where there once were none at all. Currently, the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection oversees and enforces FIFA claims. Since 2017, DCWP has received 2,024 complaints from freelancers and recovered over $2 million in owed compensation for their work, even bringing a lawsuit against a global media company. According to their 2020 State of Workers Rights Report, more than 1,600 cases were filed and over $1.6 million in restitution and penalties has been collected since 2018. In 2020, there were 470 complaints filed and 491 investigations opened. Of those, 450 were for unlawful payment practices. The law was vital in getting freelancers paid during the most vulnerable period in the freelance economy.

New Yorkers all across our great state, from Buffalo to the Hudson Valley deserve the same protections. New York has long been one of our country’s major hubs for artists, performers, creatives, and independent workers of all types who are drawn to the Empire State in pursuit of their dreams. This year, we call Albany to do what’s right in safeguarding this ever-growing sector of our economy by making sure freelancers don’t get left behind.  

Espinal is the Executive Director of the Freelancers Union. 

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