Wage Theft a Growing Problem in the New Economy
By Stephanie Phelan
“We want to be paid, and paid on time!” This outcry comes from millions of freelancers and independent workers throughout the country.
Our economy has changed a lot in the past several years, and because of that, the United States now has nearly 54 million freelancers with approximately 1.3 million of them living and working in New York City. Many economists predict that the number of freelancers, or “gig workers” will double by 2020.
Freelancers or independent workers come from a wide range of fields including publishing, teaching, finance, fashion, Internet technology and more.
Late payment and non-payment means that freelancers often can’t pay their rent and their bills on time or sometimes not at all. This has an impact not only on their lives, but also on our economy.
According to a 2015 survey done by the Freelancers Union, the average unpaid freelance worker loses almost $6000 annually; 81% of those who had payment trouble in 2014 had been paid late; 34% had not been paid at all. Late payments averaged $5,735. Labor laws as they now stand do not offer freelancers the same protections that salaried workers get against late or non-payment.
City Councilman Brad Lander, after hearing from the Freelancers Union Founder and Executive Director Sara Horowitz and several labor and business coalitions, introduced the Freelance Isn’t Free Bill to the City Council in December 2015, and a public hearing on the bill was held in City Council Chambers on February 29, 2016.
The Freelance Isn’t Free bill proposes to protect freelance workers against non-payment or late payment. It also states that employers must provide a written contract stating the rate of payment, and when payment is due. It would require payment in full within 30 days of the completion of services or from the payment’s due date. Penalties for wage theft, as it’s referred to, may include double damages and attorney’s fees to the plaintiff.
Testifying at the February 29 City Council hearing on the bill were representatives of major unions and other professional and business groups speaking for several million independent workers, all in favor of the bill. One of the hopes is that the bill’s passage will open the door for other cities and states to enact similar legislation.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke at the hearing urging support, and although not present, Public Advocate Letitia James said “…we must ensure that freelance workers have the same protections as the traditional labor force… and we can send a clear message that we will never accept wage theft in our city.”
Don’t wait to be stiffed by a client, become an activist! Join Freelancers Union or any group that represents your profession. Then write to your City Council Member, Mayor de Blasio, and even Governor Cuomo thanking them for their support and telling them why freelancers need, no, demand these protections.
The Movement Spreads: on March 9, California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced legislation that would ensure independent contractors basic workplace rights to organize, collectively bargain and enjoy many of the legal rights granted to regular employees.