Why Is Washington Ignoring the Freelance Economy?

Today is International Freelancers Day, a time to acknowledge the contributions of the millions of independent workers who make up a large and growing portion of our economy. Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization that represents America's independent workforce. In an exclusive column for The Atlantic, she calls on the federal government to build a support system for the nation's freelancers.

Happy International Freelancers Day! No, thank you. I don't want any gifts, or a parade, or a paid day-off. All I want is affordable, stable, health insurance for freelancers, and maybe some protections that help them get paid what they're due. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, yes. Despite the fact that close to one-third of the country's workforce is comprised of independent workers, this sizeable chunk of our economy has none of the protections and benefits that "traditional" employees have. Health insurance? No. Unemployment insurance? Nope. Protection from unpaid wages, or race, gender, or age discrimination? Not a chance. We've left these 42 million workers out to dry and entirely out of our social support system.

We're dealing with an outdated employment system - it was built for a workforce from the 1930s, and it no longer works for us today. So as a result, a growing number of working Americans are left with no protections.

Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data show a big jump in temporary, short-term employment - this year so far, temp jobs have increased by more than 156,000. Due to the economic downturn? In part. But more so due to a larger, seismic shift in the U.S. workforce.

Our economy is more mobile, fluid, and decentralized than it's ever been. The number of freelancers, independent contractors, consultants, self-employed, temps, part-timers, and contingent employees is increasing significantly. Instead of being tethered to one employer or company, they identify with a profession and change jobs more frequently. For example, instead of being a life-long staff member at IBM, you may be an IT guru who works on a contract basis for IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett Packard - in one year.

This new workforce evolved over the past several decades as companies used improved technology to better predict workflow, and therefore pared down on core staff to save on expenses. Companies started hiring staff only as needed - which meant hiring freelancers. Because freelancers are becoming more prevalent in the workforce, the term no longer conjures up an image of a hip, 27 year old graphic designer working in his parents' basement (or not working at all). Instead, lawyers, accountants, writers, nannies, financial advisors, IT experts, and costume designers can all claim freelance status.

Laws from the 1930s, including the New Deal, were widely celebrated for the health insurance, pensions, vacation days, job training, unions, career opportunities, and protections they extended to workers. At the time they were passed, they met the workforce's needs. But the workforce has changed since then, and independent work has been steadily growing. We need a new New Deal that meets the needs of this new workforce by building economic security that is no longer centered solely on an employer/employee relationship. Independent workers need (1) unemployment insurance to stabilize their income - and the U.S. economy - when they are involuntarily unemployed; (2) protection from late or denied payments, which 77% of freelancers have faced; and (3) access to affordable health insurance, which is prohibitively expensive to an individual on the open market.

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Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization representing the interests and concerns of the independent workforce.

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