Freelance Economy Expands During The Coronavirus Pandemic : NPR

The pandemic has brought some trends in the workplace into high gear. Some employers are converting full-time positions to freelance positions. In some salaried professions, freelance work can become the norm.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There is a saying these days: the future of work is now. The pandemic has turned millions of us into virtual workers. And there is another trend that is less obvious – full-time, permanent jobs that are freelance. This separates the relationships between the company and employees, as Uri Berliner reports from NPR.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Diana Gill was having her coffee early that morning in her New York apartment when the news came from the boss’s office. Can you get a call this morning?

DIANA GILL: With the president. And then of course I knew what that meant.

BERLINER: She was fired from her job as editor-in-chief at Tor Books. Gill was given a month’s notice and she had many projects to keep her busy. So the new reality did not register itself at first. But then…

GILL: It was May and I thought there was COVID, so there are definitely no jobs at this minute.

BERLINER: That’s where it started. She worked as a freelancer. Her 24-year career as an editor at New York’s top publishers was over. Editing book-length manuscripts is a special skill, so Gill has been pretty busy so far. But she’s been thrown into the much less secure world of freelancing, where the money and gigs are unpredictable.

GILL: Freelancing is a festival or a famine, so it comes in waves. And I know at some point there will be less of it. So I look at this and what to do and how it works as a business.

BERLINER: To make it work as a company, to become a free agent – that is the challenge, the predicament – however you want to put it – against many Americans.

JULIA POLLAK: The percentage increases are alarmingly large.

BERLINER: This is Julia Pollak, labor economist at the ZipRecruiter construction site. ZipRecruiter tracks the proportion of temporary and non-permanent job postings and has grown dramatically during the pandemic.

POLLAK: The proportion of temporary job advertisements in communications was only 12% before COVID, for example. It rose to 48% in April and May. And while it’s come down a bit, it’s still very, very high.

BERLINER: A similar story in areas like HR and advertising.

POLLAK: In marketing, the jump was historically around 8% to 28% after COVID.

BERLINER: Part of this shift is predictable. When the economy is shaky and the outlook is uncertain, employers are reluctant to hire permanent employees. And now tools like Zoom create more flexibility in the workplace. Employees can be taken care of anytime, anywhere by any capable person with a phone and laptop. Work is not tied to the office, so employees do not establish personal connections with their superiors.

STEPHANIE CAUDLE: I think now, you know, a lot of companies are starting to think, hey, maybe we don’t really need these full-time employees.

BERLINER: Stephanie Caudle is the founder of the Black Girl Group, a freelance recruitment agency.

CAUDLE: I think now you know these companies are starting to see how, hey, having these people at home saves me money. Hey, I don’t see these people so do I really need to give them advantages?

BERLINER: When the recession dragged on, the ax fell on a large number of workers. And some experts in the workplace say that many more employees are being done by contractors, probably forever. But starting a freelance career after you’ve been laid off isn’t something people volunteer to do, says Caudle.

CAUDLE: You start to work as a freelancer almost out of necessity. You don’t have time to cry or feel down or depressed because you’ve lost your job. You still have bills to pay, and those bills don’t worry you lost your job.

BERLINER: The freelance economy was huge before the pandemic and has grown even bigger during this pandemic. Only last year were two million freelancers added. This emerges from the freelance platform Upwork. Upworks study claims that a majority of freelancers who have started out since the pandemic say no amount of money would convince them to take a traditional job. A completely different picture emerges on the ZipRecruiter construction site. Here is the company’s labor economist, Julia Pollak.

POLLAK: The vast majority – 90% of active ZipRecruiter job seekers – are looking for a permanent full-time position.

BERLINER: A job with benefits like health care, a job with meaning and mission where you create real connections with your employees. Pollak says that’s what most workers want.

Uri Berliner, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. For more information, see the Terms of Use and Permissions pages on our website at www.npr.org.

NPR transcripts are created in no time by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, using a proprietary transcription engine developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR programming is the audio recording.

April 8, 2021