Lamentations of a Freelancer: The Struggle to Survive in the COVID Economy
It can be damn hard working in a gig-economy, even in the best of times. As the COVID pandemic continues to grip the world, and we find ourselves facing some of the very worst of times, it is even harder for freelancers, sole traders and the self-employed to eke out a living. With many more of us vying for work, and some governments showing little recognition of freelance and self-employed workers when it comes to their emergency support schemes, many of us are struggling like never before to keep the wolves from the door. So when people try to haggle us down to working for peanuts, attempt to bail out on their bills, and generally treat us as little more than dancing monkeys for hire, you’ll forgive us if our understanding and good-will start to evaporate…
I have always had impeccably bad timing. Whether it’s in life or in love, I will somehow manage to do what is basically the right thing but at the most spectacularly wrong time. If you invite me to a party, I’m either going to be the guest who shows up on your doorstep unfashionably early, standing awkwardly in your kitchen while you race around half-dressed and with hair still dripping wet from the shower, filling small wooden bowls with corn-chips and peanuts in preparation for your more clock-savvy friends; OR I’m going to be the one who forgets to show up at all because she could have sworn your very important milestone birthday-party wasn’t happening until next Saturday.
I joined Facebook just as everyone was leaving. I was slow to get on the Twitter train. Last year, I watched “Pulp Fiction” for the very first time. If we start seeing each other and you’re mad keen on me, I’m still not quite sure. When you’re starting to cool off and making your moves for the door, I’m falling head over heels.
And so it was, at the beginning of 2020 that I, in my typical style, finally made the decision to quit my increasingly unbearable “day-job”, with near-on a decade and a half’s service behind me. I had spent the preceding two years of that time listening to numerous counsellors, doctors and mental health professionals advising me that my job was severely affecting both my mental and physical well-being and that I would be well advised to find something else to do in order to earn a living.
“Well, that’s all fine and well for you to say,” I would sullenly retort, “but I‘m not good at anything else!”
Despondent, and riddled with poor self-confidence, low self-esteem, and the suffocating feeling of being trapped in misery and depression for the rest of my life, I kept on showing up to the office with a fake smile (that I’m sure looked like more of a grimace) plastered on my face, and giving myself tearful pep-talks every morning in an attempt to muster the courage and fortitude necessary just to walk out the door.
I couldn’t keep it up for very long.
To Leap, or Not to Leap: Deciding to Ditch the Day-Job
The decision to put all your eggs in the freelancing basket is a big one. For many writers/ comedians / musicians/ journalists/ et al, months, if not years, are spent debating the pros and cons of giving up the day-job and its regular paycheck in favour of chasing their dream of being able to do what they love and still keep a roof over their heads.
For the majority of people, these musings remain just that- happy fantasies of a life never lived, daydreams of the road not taken. The stark and unfortunate reality is that while money may not be the most important thing in the world, the lack of it makes living nigh on impossible. There are rents and mortgages to pay, food to buy and (to quote Destiny’s Child) bills, bills, bills. When you can’t guarantee what your earnings will be for any given month, money very quickly becomes the central focus of your existence.
My decision to leap into freelancing was, in large part, spurred by necessity. Not to go into too fine a detail, I’d reached a point with my mental health where my continued existence in the world was predicated on me just getting the hell out of a workplace that was steadily destroying me! However, having already done some freelancing and enjoying middling-to-moderate success, I wasn’t flying completely blind. I had already written about my first steps into the freelancing universe and learning how to overcome my very British tendency to avoid blowing my own trumpet (Do the Hustle! Learning to Sell Myself and My Content, Sept, 2019). I learned some valuable lessons about the need to be wary and far less trusting when nearly $1000 USD worth of work I had spent five solid days and nights researching and writing was stolen by someone who had seemed like a legit employer on Freelancer.com, and the company did precisely sod all to help me (despite them having reassured me only days earlier when my spidey-senses were tingling and I contacted them seeking some assurance). I learned far more than I ever wanted to about debt-collection and LBAs (Letter Before Action) when another client mysteriously vanished after the project deliverables had indeed been delivered and it was now time to pay the invoice.
Though my run-ins with these fradulant individuals made me curse my gullibility, I quickly learned the importance of listening to one’s instincts and embracing the adage “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. Nevertheless, these bad apples represented only a small fraction of my clients, and my success rate far exceeded my losses. Moreover, I reasoned, if I moved out of London, I could more than half my rent and, based on this saving alone, I felt confident that I could survive. I would have to wait a couple of months for my lease to run out, but I had just enough in savings and a regular stream of work coming in to manage in the interim.
So, I took the leap.
And within a few short weeks, the world found itself at the mercy of a virulent pathogen that would wield a devastating hammer-blow to not only global health, but to the global economy.
Going Viral: The Burgeoning of the COVID Crisis
Though the novel corona virus SARS-CoV-2, more (in)famously known as COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019, it was not until January 30, 2020 that the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the outbreak as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)”. On 11 March, 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. As nation after nation saw their infection rates rising, despite social-distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, a wave of lockdown measures designed to control the spread of the virus were instigated by governments the world over.
“Work from home, if at all possible” became the mantra, with an implicit shrug of the shoulders to all those without such an option. In the United Kingdom, some Pay-As-You-Earn employees (PAYE, the system by which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, or HMRC, collect Income Tax and National Insurance via deductions made by the employer) were able to benefit from furlough schemes designed to protect jobs and avoid redundancies, and eligible businesses could apply for loans and other financial support from the UK government.
Sadly, for those working in hospitality, the arts, the travel sector and other at-risk businesses, while the concern over COVID-19 and the willingness to do whatever possible to “flatten the curve” and protect families, friends and neighbours was (and still is) strong, fears over job-losses and insolvency were (and still are) very, very real.
Statistics from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) illustrated the effects of the COVID crisis on employment, calculating that
In June 2020, 74,000 fewer people were in paid employment when compared with May 2020 and 649,000 fewer people were in paid employment when compared with March 2020 . (Earnings and employment from Pay As You Earn Real Time Information, UK: July 2020)
Though the ONS recorded a small rise in UK employment figures in September 2020 as nation-wide lockdown measures were eased, the current rises in infection rates world-wide during the “second wave” of the pandemic are resulting in one country after another returning to their lockdowns. Indeed, new lockdown restrictions have recently come into force in the UK. While the government has, under much duress, extended the furlough scheme into Spring 2021, there are still many UK workers who remain ineligible for any means of additional support during the crisis.
Fallen Through the Cracks: The Excluded and Forgotten Freelancer
So, what of the recently self-employed, freelancers, those denied furlough, those ineligible for Universal Credit (which at approximately £409.89 a month for a single person aged 25 and up doesn’t even cover most people’s monthly rent), and all the other individuals making up what ExcludedUK estimate to be 3.1 million tax-payers excluded from government support? These individuals are left to scrape together what they can by whatever means possible.
As someone whose freelancing journey began only recently, I fall into the category of the Excluded, as I do not have the necessary business tax returns for 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19. However, I was still managing to bring in enough money to live, albeit very frugally, through my work as a narrator and audiobook producer. The last few weeks have seen a noticable downturn in the amount of projects available, and where I could once rely on regular success with my auditions (or, indeed, direct offers of work without having to audition), these appear to have dried up.
I completely understand and appreciate the reasons for this downturn. As illustrated above, the economic impact of the pandemic means that more individuals than ever are struggling financially and, naturally, with less cash at their disposal and uncertainty about the future, people are less inclined to spend on anything deemed ‘non-essential’ at the moment. Believe me, I get it; I’m living it everyday when I weigh up what’s more important- buying some fresh veggies or being able to pay the gas bill this quarter? What I am less understanding of, indeed, what makes my blood boil and my teeth grind, are those who expect freelancers to work for a fraction of what they are worth.
Let me state categorically that all those for whom I have completed work (with the exception of the two instances mentioned above) have been supportive, appreciative, and a pleasure to call clients. No, it is the wanna-be clientele who still contact me out of the blue to tell me that they have a project that I must complete with inhuman urgency, and then inform me that they will deign to pay me an amount equivalent to less than half of my minimum rate.
Most of these offers I reject outright, pointing out that my rates are clearly displayed on my profile page: my spidey senses are becoming attuned to fakes, chancers and charlatans, and often it is the people who treat me like a dancing monkey that are more likely to give me nervous moments when payment is due for the work I’ve spend countless hours labouring over. Others I might respond to with a willingness to negotiate. Frustratingly, most of the time I don’t even get a response to say “I’m afraid I’m not able to afford anything higher than my initial offer, but thank you for your reply.” Perhaps I am old-fashioned, or overly sensitive, but I find it extremely rude and discourteous of someone who had expected me to drop everything at their beck and call to then blank me when I stand up for the right to have my time and effort remunerated fairly and appropriately. Well, pal, here’s a newsflash for ya- I’ve gotta sleep, bathe, and eat too, y’know, and I ain’t here to be exploited!
Freelancing Frustrations: Trying to Keep Your Head Up When You Feel You and Your Work Aren’t Valued
There have always been those who look down their noses at “creative” folk. Artists, actors, authors, comedians, copywriters, costumiers, grips, cameramen/women, lighting technicians, musicians, photographers, set designers, sound engineers, and the list goes on; they are all used to being told to “get a proper job”. In our post-2016, Trump-ian world, anyone remotely involved in the so-called “lame-stream media” (ho ho ho, my sides are splitting, *yawn*) and its peripheries is likely to be sneered at for being a liberal, leftie snowflake, regardless of their actual political leanings. Creative endeavours are too-often dismissed as being frivolous frippery. The Arts, with a capital ‘A’, are seen as non-essential, despite the fact that they are so fundamental to human society. That so many of the Excluded self-employed come from the Arts and world of creative labour is a sad testament to just how often insufficient value is placed on their work and its worth.
It’s debilitating enough sometimes to feel that you’re somehow a fraud or a childish and self-indulgent Peter Pan because you make a living (or endeavour to, at least!) through the use of your creativity rather than through the “traditional” 9-to-5. When you add to that insult the considerable injury of being left to scavenge for scraps in order to survive the economic downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it can become very difficult for freelancers and the self-employed to maintain their self-esteem and believe that what they have to offer is of merit. When combined with the isolation and loneliness engendered by strict lockdown measures, it becomes a slippery slope into potentially serious mental health crises.
If you, like me, are a struggling freelancer who is noticing a downturn in the availability of work, I encourage you to look online for contact telephone numbers, information and signposts to the support that might be available to you. If your mental health is being affected, reach out to someone; your GP, one of the mental health charities in your part of the world, your partner, a trusted friend, etc. Remember that you are not alone, and that the current downturn you are experiencing IS NOT YOUR FAULT. It is not a measure of how good you are at what you do, and should you choose to lower your rates or bid for lower-paid projects than you normally would, always try to do so in a way that still allows you to maintain your sense of self-worth and self-respect for your skills and your abilities.
It’s one hell of a balancing act, and I am in no way claiming that I am always able to follow my own advice in this regard, but it’s crucial to find your middle ground between getting a job! any frickin’ job! and despairing that you’ve sold yourself and your skill-set short. Only you will know where that middle ground lies for you, but once you locate it, don’t let anyone ever make you feel guilty about sticking to it.
We’re no one’s dancing monkeys, and there is value in what we do.
Post Script: An End in Sight? Or, Bringing Up The Rear (As Usual)
Remember how at the start of this article, I told you that I am always trailing behind the 8-ball? Well, as I write this closing parapgraph (9 Nov, 2020), drug-development companies Pfizer and BioNTech have announced that their COVID vaccine, currently in the final phase of its human trials, “can prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19” (Covid vaccine: First ‘milestone’ vaccine offers 90% protection, BBC News, 9 Nov, 2020). Also today, US President-Elect, Joe Biden, and VP-Elect, Kamala Harris, announced their COVID-19 Advisory Board and, in keeping with their pledges pre-election, the administration’s team is science-based: virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, infectious disease experts, the list goes on. Fingers crossed, there is hope on the horizon. At any rate, when it comes to fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic, we are certainly in a better place than we were only a week ago.
Now, I’m not saying that this is all entirely down to my finally sitting down to write this article that I have been composing in my head and on scraps of paper for several weeks, but at the risk of exposing myself as an egomanic with a Messiah Complex, it does strike me as somewhat in keeping with my tendency to be, as my Scottish mother used to say, “the coo’s tail” (the cow’s tail- i.e. always bringing up the rear, late) and turning up to join the discussion just as it’s (potentially) beginning to draw to a close.
You’re welcome, world. ;)
Are you in the UK and one of the Excluded, and find yourself struggling to cope financially or emotionally? Don’t suffer alone. Visit ExcludedUK to find resources, join their discussion forum, and find out about what support and advice they can offer.
Are you able to help ExcludedUK support those 3.1 million UK tax-payers who have fallen through the cracks of the Government’s COVID-19 support schemes? Please visit ExcludedUK’s Donation page to help.
If you enjoyed this article, please remember to give it some “claps” before you leave. Your claps will help this struggling freelancer earn a few pennies, and it won’t cost you a jot. Thank you x