The coronavirus could change how freelancers work in the long term

April 15, 2020, 9:45 PM UTC

The coronavirus pandemic is thrusting into the spotlight some of the fundamental problems that define working life for the 57 million Americans, or 35% of the country’s workforce that, according to a recent report by freelancing platform Upwork and the Freelancer’s Union, make their living by being self-employed.

The same report states that frelancers contribute $1 trillion annually to the GDP, and they operate largely without benefits—no sick leave, no unemployment, no paid time off. But as this pandemic progresses, it’s becoming clear that demands from freelance workers—be them writers, performers, ride-share drivers, or hospitality workers—are as valid as those from full-time employees. 

And as regular office-life is going through changes that will go beyond COVID-19, and freelancers are facing a particularly dry season amidst the pandemic, this could also be the moment when self-employment is reshaped for the years to come.

Freelancers’ benefits could finally be broader and long-term 

The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, offers the self-employed large-scale unemployment insurance for the first time ever. “For the first time in history, under the federal stimulus package, unemployment will now cover freelance workers,” Rafael Espinal, President of the Freelancers Union. “This will inject needed money for workers to get by. Of course, it won’t cover all expenses, but it’s a start. We should find ways [for] this [to] become a right moving forward.”

Espinal also believes that if benefits were portable—each individual taking them from job to job without their coverage being interrupted—, that would create new opportunities for workers who prefer to be independent but are staying in full-time positions so as not to lose their benefits. 

Of course, the benefits enacted are imperfect and come with a thick layer of bureaucracy. Kara Kleindienst, founder and CEO of New York-based dog walking company The Barking Meter, says the challenges for the self-employed who need to physically go to a job are complicated, including the loans and grants being afforded to businesses like her own.

“It’s a very difficult and confusing process,” she says. “For small business owners who cannot work from home, this money may be the only means to save our companies—yet the applications are daunting or not even open yet or financial institutions won’t take it on in the first place.” 

Self-employment could become safer than full-time jobs

Hayden Brown, president and CEO of Upwork, thinks we’ll be seeing more and more freelance workers as the pandemic continues—largely because people feel more secure having more than one income source.

“We have heard from many independent professionals, particularly in the last ten years since the 2009 recession, that they feel a heightened sense of security having multiple sources of income via various clients they serve,” Brown says. With the pandemic and the recessionary period that may follow, “we anticipate that more workers will seek out
independent contracting arrangement”, she adds.

Sarah M. is one of such workers leaving her job at a school, citing job security as one of the reasons. “COVID-19 is likely to put that institution, already on shaky financial ground, into an even more precarious position,” she says. “Being self-employed actually feels more secure to me than working for a struggling small college.” 

Others who have been freelancers for a long time, and always interpreted that as a risk, now feel differently. Nate Johnson, a leadership and mindset coach, says that the lack of job security involved with freelancing has caused him to reconsider what security really means, namely that it must be self-provided. “I’m glad I learned this a while back because so many people are realizing that even ‘secure’ jobs aren’t guaranteed,” he notes. 

Monet Izabeth, a freelance content creator, says that the financial effects of COVID-19 have only reaffirmed her decision to be a freelancer. “I feel very prepared for this type of uncertainty, even more than some of my friends who have full-time, in-office jobs,” she says. “My work environment has strengthened my mindset of ‘where can I find the opportunity in this situation?’ instead of focusing on the negatives.” Used to the risk of being self-employed, freelancers tend to be more resilient—a useful resource when navigating unstable times like these.

Remote work could become the norm

Upwork and the Freelancer’s Union believe that the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelance as soon as 2027. As the new work-from-home reality of coronavirus leaves its mark, we could find that number growing even more quickly. 

“Remote work, and the talented freelancers who work remotely, will increasingly be the norm,” Brown says. “The trends supporting this started well before the current crisis, and may be accelerated by the changes everyone is making to adapt to new realities.”

Evidence of the trend is already on the talent side, with the increased number of freelancer sign-ups in the past weeks. “As businesses are rapidly adopting more flexible, remote work models, as well as contending with an uncertain economic climate, we expect them to be more open-minded to working with remote, independent freelancers than ever before,” she adds.

Megan K., a freelance set designer, hopes that one day her independent career will involve benefits, though she can’t quite picture what that would look like. “I have been freelance long enough that ordinarily I feel that I have some security; for every quiet time, there is an equally busy time to counterbalance,” she says. “I wish that my career provided some kind of retainer for the quieter times, although it’s hard to envision how that would work.”

While it may be hard to imagine exactly what the future of freelancing would, or could, look like, this enforced shake-up is being used to redefine things individually and collectively. “This crisis provides an opportunity to show how large of a workforce [freelancers are],” Espinal, of the Freelance Union, says. “And why we should be supporting the future of [that] work.”

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

—How Fortune 500 companies are stepping up during the pandemic
—3 ways to put your best foot forward on a video job interview
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
How freelancers can pivot to make it through 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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