BRENT MESSENGER: Support freelancers to revive the post-COVID economy

By Brent Messenger

More than 50 million Americans have filed unemployment claims since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And business bankruptcies are expected to rise nearly 50 percent this year.

This economic turmoil is pushing both businesses and workers towards a greater reliance on freelancing. Americans are increasingly turning to these flexible jobs and choosing to become their own bosses, rather than search for a traditional 9 to 5 in a soft labor market. And one in every three companies plans to utilize more independent contractors to meet their changing needs, according to research firm Gartner.

Freelancers are helping drive the economy’s recovery — and they’ll continue to boost the economy long after the pandemic ends. It’s time for lawmakers to support this growing share of the workforce by providing freelancers with the same protections that salaried employees have long enjoyed.

Freelancers are already an indispensable and growing part of our labor force. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the 5.8 million freelancers in the top 30 U.S. markets contributed roughly $150 billion to the economy. In those regions, the number of freelancers grew by 15 percent between 2012 and 2017.

COVID-19 has accelerated this shift towards a freelance-centric economy.

Forty percent of freelancers said their workloads have either remained consistent or increased. Over half predicted that demand will increase following COVID-19.

And given the uncertainties about the future, many companies need cost-effective ways to fulfill their business needs. Freelancers’ flexibility and skillsets make them well-equipped to meet that demand.

Consider a small business trying to expand their online presence. It doesn’t make sense for a bookstore or restaurant to pay someone full-time to put together a single website. Most small firms don’t need a full-fledged marketing department either — but they do need help regaining customers after months of closures and lockdowns. Freelancers can step in and provide those services.

Our country’s economic revival is linked to the success of these workers. It’s time for lawmakers to acknowledge freelancers’ value by including them in safety net programs.

They can start by making unemployment benefits for freelance workers permanent. Congress temporarily extended these benefits to freelancers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which will expire at the end of the year. Ensuring access to these benefits long after COVID-19 abates would make the new freelance economy less precarious.

An economy supported by independent workers also requires reforms to the nation’s healthcare system.

One way to provide more — and better — insurance options for independent workers is by shoring up the Affordable Care Act, which made it easier for freelancers to get coverage through online insurance exchanges. The law isn’t perfect. But there’s no reason that Republicans and Democrats shouldn’t be able to work together to make the exchanges work better.

Expanding access to affordable continuing education is also a necessity. Although acquiring new skills and knowledge in one’s field is essential to competing as an independent professional, only a quarter of today’s freelancers have used existing educational resources. Student loan forgiveness programs would make using these resources much more affordable.

Finally, since freelancers work remotely, an internet connection is invaluable. Yet, over 20 million Americans still lack access to reliable internet. Lawmakers can close that gap by funding the expansion of our country’s broadband infrastructure.

Policymakers can ensure the rise in freelancing leads to a vibrant economic recovery — by giving freelancers the basic security they deserve.

Brent Messenger is vice president of public policy & community engagement at Fiverr. This piece originally ran in Fox Business.

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