Before the pandemic, freelancers accounted for about a quarter of the workforce, and that number has only grown since COVID-19 hit. Millions more have joined the gig economy this year as employers have shed part and full-time positions—over a third of American workers now say they’re part of the gig economy. Some economists say that within 10 years, half the American workforce will be freelance workers.
So, what do freelancers in the Roaring Fork Valley think about this year’s election?
Local freelance graphic designer and illustrator Lindsay Jones spoke to Aspen Public Radio about her thoughts before she casts her ballot this November for the first installment in our election series “What Can I Expect From My Government?”
The Ups and Downs of Freelancing
For most artists, writers, performers and other creatives, freelancing is just how the industry works, but there’s hardly a safety net. Freelancers don’t get traditional benefits like paid time off and sick leave, and they’re also often paid per project instead of per hour.
“You work your butt off and you are not guaranteed a paycheck from that labor,” said Jones.
Instead of splitting health insurance costs with an employer, freelancers also are responsible for shouldering monthly premiums themselves. Some freelancers get relief through tax credits available through the Affordable Care Act. Jones says those tax credits put health insurance within her reach for the first time in five years.
“I know in this valley the cost was exorbitant for people that had to pay for it,” she said. “I know it wasn’t a perfect system and still isn’t, but for me that was the first time I was insured.”
Polling by the freelance platform Upwork and the Freelancers Union in 2019 showed that about a quarter of freelancers pay for their own insurance—with or without tax credits depending on income—out of pocket. Forty percent of survey respondents tap Medicaid or Medicare for insurance.
In California, the issue is on the ballot as Proposition 22, which would codify certain independent workers with a minimum safety net in terms of benefits. No such ballot measure is up for a vote in Colorado or the Roaring Fork Valley, but freelancers like Jones are paying attention to what candidates say about the ACA.
The Pandemic Effect
So, how has the pandemic affected all of this? Aside from adding more workers to the gig economy that had part or full-time work before the pandemic, it’s made finding work harder for existing freelance workers.
“I lost every job I was working on in March,” said Jones. “A lot of my work comes from the fashion industry, and fashion is not a priority right now.”
The pandemic has also made it harder for her to find new jobs, since she typically networks at large trade shows like Denver’s annual Outdoor Retailer.
“I go there and I get my hustle on,” she said. “I visit companies’ booths that I would love to work with and I ask if they’d be interested in working with a freelance textile designer.”
The government stimulus package passed by Congress in March was the first ever that included financial relief for freelance workers, and Jones was eligible for funds. She says that being a freelance artist has made her a savvy financial planner, but seeing what a difference government relief has made for millions of Americans has highlighted, for her, how fragile so many people’s financial situations were before the pandemic.
“The relief was difficult to get a hold of, but I was so thankful when I did,” she said. “I didn’t lose hope because I know how to work finances so I’m not struggling to eat because as a freelancer you don’t always know where your next job is going to come from.”
Jones says that while she’s seen a dip in income, she’s optimistic about changing consumer spending over the course of the pandemic. Surging bike sales, for one, have benefited some of the local companies that hire her for design work.
A chunk of her income has also come from local government funds this year. The Basalt Public Arts Commission, or BPAC, tapped her to design a mural for their new outdoor dining barriers in Willits this summer. That led to another commission for a mural at a residence in Los Angeles. She drove there this fall with her husband, and visited family in rural parts of Oregon along the way. That’s also given her some optimism as she casts her vote.
“It’s easy to think that all hell is breaking loose everywhere you go,” she said. “Living in the valley I feel a bit stuck in a bubble and to know people that are still civil out there … even though things aren’t great, they’re also not as bad as some people want you to believe.”
Whether other Roaring Fork Valley voters share her concerns will be left to the ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 3.