With work drying up, here’s how freelancers can pivot to make it through the coronavirus pandemic

April 9, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all the columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com.

The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: I’m a photographer, and I’ve been a full-time freelancer for years. I make my money from events and weddings, and I sometimes do documentary work, which is my true passion. The coronavirus totally caught me off guard. Like most people, I’m worried about a lot right now: getting sick, people I love getting sick, what this means. I’m also really worried about work right now. With events canceled until ???? and weddings probably canceled through wedding season (my busiest time of the year), I’m suddenly in a terrible position when I thought this year was well planned. 

My freelance work last month was canceled, including a ton of shoots at SXSW, where I usually work like crazy and make connections with people who might hire me later. This month’s work is canceled, and I’m not very hopeful about next month. I’m waiting to see what things might be rescheduled and what I can rely on this fall. A lot of my work on weddings is from referrals, so I’m worried now that less work in the spring is going to mean less work in the fall. 

Even though I’ve worked hard to build my business and line up a mix of client work, everything has suddenly changed. What should I do now when everything is uncertain, including whether I might be able to leave my house this week?

Dear Jamie, 

I feel you. The loss of work in the past few weeks is overwhelming. You’re not alone in how you’ve been affected or what you’re worried about. We don’t know what to expect over the coming months because of the pandemic and its effects on the global economy. The way we live and work looks very different than it did just a few weeks ago. In the future, our experiences during the pandemic will inform new ways of being and of doing business. 

Even before COVID-19, millions of freelancers were already working in systems where they took on outsize risks. As someone who has been freelancing for years, you’re already familiar with the challenges. From financial risk to changing client demands, the pressures on independent workers aren’t new. What this moment gives us is an opportunity to go beyond reacting to the current situation to building a more equitable environment for independent workers. The work you do on your business and in tending to relationships will pay off in the future.

Since things are changing so rapidly, I talked to a few people to get a sense of what their world looks like right now. I reached out to Rafael Espinal, executive director of Freelancers Union, the largest organization that represents independent workers. More than one in three Americans freelanced last year, and Freelancers Union has over 490,000 members from a wide range of industries, from domestic workers to lawyers. Espinal told me that across all industries that freelancers work in, money is the number one concern right now. 

“This pandemic has created the largest financial crisis that freelancers have encountered in modern history,” Espinal said. “Because of the fact that nonessential workplaces have been closed, it has made it nearly impossible for freelancers across the board to be able to find work and earn an income. So you have a workforce that is about 57 million people in size across the country that doesn’t have that source of income.” 

Workers are being hit on both sides—they’re struggling to close contracts and find work, plus they’re having a hard time recouping costs for work they’ve already done.

Freelance photographer Caitlin O’Hara echoed Espinal’s concerns and gave context on the precarious situation many photographers are in. 

“There were a lot of problems already, and this just exacerbates them,” she said. “A lot of people weren’t getting paid on time; a lot of people don’t have insurance; a lot of people were barely making it and are now expected to have a bunch of savings, which is not the reality for a lot of us.” 

My please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is to adjust your hustle. Check in with yourself about what needs attention if you’re not so focused on client work right now. Tend to the nuts-and-bolts side of your freelance business in this unexpected downtime. Catch up on any lingering invoices. Pull things out of your email that need to be documented somewhere else. Do a personal inventory of which clients may have work down the line. Update your contacts. Brainstorm a list of people you’d like to work with and projects you’d like to do. Making space for admin and planning work will lead to new ideas and potential leads.

For you, and for freelancers across the board, now is a good time for planning, personal growth, and strengthening relationships. Check in on how you’re presenting and approaching your work. Level up your website (multiple people I talked to mentioned this and FWIW, this is also a personal goal that I’m hoping to make good on myself over the next month) and refresh your bio. Think about what you need now and how you can show up in your community. Plan personal projects. Take an online class or make time for another way to improve your technical expertise. Consider donating time to small organizations and nonprofits. 

Your instinct is to be productive, and I get that. Be mindful if you need to pause. This unexpected downtime might be a good time to make room for self-care, especially if you were working like crazy before the crisis. It’s okay for you to focus more on being than doing right now. 

Arikia Millikan is an independent consultant who works with the biomedical industry, who’s had more clients since the pandemic hit. Some are coming from referrals, and she’s also been doing outreach to floundering companies that don’t know where to look. With a shift to remote work, clients are confident in her since she established a reputation working online over the past seven years. If you can demonstrate that you have the skills to work remotely, now’s the time to highlight them. Your web presence is likely optimized for events now. Take some time to highlight what you can do online.

Millikan told me that being flexible, building on her expertise, and accommodating new situations and clients based on a more humanistic perspective has worked well for her.

“I’m transparent about where my expertise lies,” Millikan said. “But I think having that flexibility, like the knowledge that it is possible to learn something new and that your expertise might make you better positioned to learn something new faster—that’s part of why you’re an expert.”  

Now—or soon—may be a time for you to ask for support if you need it. For the first time, independent workers qualify for federal unemployment, which will provide $600 per week on top of what’s available from state unemployment. Fortune has already published a helpful overview of how the self-employed can take advantage of the coronavirus stimulus package and unemployment benefits.

“What the federal government did has set precedent for a broader conversation of what a real social safety net for freelancers can look like moving forward, so we don’t have to wait for the next crisis to think about how do we put an economic plan in place to support them,” Espinal said. “This can lead to a broader conversation around unemployment insurance and paid sick days for freelance workers moving forward.” 

There are also an incredible number of inspiring mutual aid efforts happening. Both Espinal and O’Hara encouraged freelancers to look into what people in their industry are organizing and how people are coming together to help. For photographers in particular, O’Hara pointed to Authority Collective, which is pairing freelance visual journalists and artists with donors on a weekly basis. Espinal encourages freelancers from any industry facing sudden hardship to apply to the new Freelancers Relief Fund from Freelancers Union. 

A number of crowdsourced documents show mutual aid efforts around the U.S., some listing relief efforts by state. Some funding is aimed specifically at independent artists, and some opportunities are aimed at creative freelancers. Some emergency funds are giving priority to the first applications and some have short application windows, so the sooner you apply, the better chance that you have to get funding. They are also great places to get inspiration on how people are organizing and which organizations are supporting creative communities. Over the next few months, as you are rebuilding your business, these efforts might give you support and new connections.

This is a moment of opportunity for people who work with freelancers. As a member of Juntos Photo Coop, O’Hara doesn’t only shoot photos, but she’s also reimagining how photographers can be in community with each other and their subjects. Juntos sees this as a moment in which the photo industry can do better at supporting independent workers (the majority of photographers are self-employed) and the communities they serve. I see the work they’re doing as an inspiration to freelancers in other industries as well. 

Juntos released new guidelines for hiring freelance photographers during the pandemic. The call to action seeks to build a more equitable industry. The guidelines offer concrete actions that hiring managers can take now to better guarantee health, safety, and dignity, from paying expenses upfront to building the cost of protective gear into contracts. 

“If editors aren’t in a position to provide PPE, if they’re not willing to have conversations, briefings, and trainings with people, then they’re not in a position to hire freelancers at the moment,” O’Hara said. “We can’t see people using freelancers as disposable or as something like, ‘If they get sick, then we’ll just move on to the next one because we’re not responsible for their health.’”  

You can use their guidelines to have conversations with your clients and other photographers you know to advocate for what you need. We’re all working in new ways because of this pandemic; your safety and well-being should be factored into any new jobs you’re planning. 

“We’re at a moment now where we can all help build the industry that we know is possible where people are feeling valued,” O’Hara said. “We’re going to be working in a new way in the wake of this pandemic, and we feel like it could be an opportunity to push our industry in a direction that’s more equitable.”

For people who are hiring independent workers like you, now is the time to advocate for freelancers. Pay them on time. Be transparent about planned work that may be canceled due to the pandemic or how budgets might be impacted. Keep an open channel of communication. Have empathy for workers who may need to pass on gigs because they are sick or if they feel the job may be risky. Keep them in the rotation for future work. Be an advocate for freelancers’ health and safety with other people you work with, including people who may not be familiar with their scope of work and how they may be vulnerable. 

Millikan is hopeful about the role that freelancers can play right now, and offers reasons for you to be hopeful too. 

“A great amount of creativity will be needed to solve these problems because they’re not problems that anyone has had to solve before. So you can’t apply old ways of doing things to this present situation,” Millikan said. “Creative people and freelancing has gone hand in hand for ages. If it’s a matter of clinging to the past and going back to the way things were, I don’t think that’s possible.”

Sending you good vibes, 

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

—3 ways to manage conflict when you work remotely
How to job hunt during the coronavirus pandemic
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
—4 things to say if recruiters call you during the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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