Working woman. Image source:

How Much Unpaid Labor Do You Perform Each Week?

Take My Challenge to Find Out

Like a lot of creative people, I struggle with asking to be paid for my work. When the work is enjoyable or in any way creative, I succumb to a lot of doubts about my value. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve become an experienced content manager, SEO copywriter, and content marketer. I know more than the basics when it comes to building a blog and I’ve mentored dozens of writers and editors. Some of them have gone on to work for Fortune 500 companies, found their own successful businesses, or even find employment with comic book publishers and toy retailers.

Those are all competitive businesses, and I’m pleased to have helped them along the way. Just as importantly, those mentees gave their time and talent to me in turn.

Not all business and personal relationships work that way.

Sometimes, the freelance life is a struggle. When you’re staring at an overdue car payment and unpaid invoices totaling more than twice the amount you need, the frustration is real.

And one thing I’ve noticed as I refine my time management skills and become more conscientious about charging what I’m worth (not an easy thing to do after a layoff) — I do a LOT of unpaid labor.

What Is Unpaid Labor?

Here’s how I define “unpaid labor.”

Unpaid labor is solicited. If someone asks about something and I volunteer to respond, that really doesn’t count as unpaid labor. Unpaid labor means another person has specifically reached out to me, or that my expertise has come up in a detailed conversation. Perhaps I’ve answered a simple question for them, but they hope for an in-depth, hour-long conversation about marketing strategies.

Unpaid labor does not refer to any formal or informal agreement or exchange. For example: game designers who comp me tickets to their LARPs (live action role playing games); people I hit up for advice just as often; friends and professionals who regularly send me referrals and freelance opportunities; an informal or formal barter agreement. People who support my products and services by sharing them, offering feedback, or buying tickets or services.

For these purposes, I define unpaid labor as an unequal exchange. It occurs in two contexts:

Business Context of Unpaid Labor

These are the “job interviews” that are actually four hour long, free marketing consultations. (You’re welcome — and thanks, I feel quite used.)

This is the person who has asked me, knowing I am a professional editor with very reasonable rates, to review their email for the third time without paying me.

This is the prospective contract employer who wants me to write a 1500 word “sample” piece to get a job, when my portfolio clearly houses five or six pieces that can demonstrate my ability in their preferential niche.

In short, I am doing work that I should be compensated for. The other person is knowingly or unknowingly taking advantage.

Social Context of Unpaid Labor

I might not be the most aware person, but I do try to keep up with progressive social movements. I’m willing to be uncomfortable so that I can change and help and include others more. What’s even harder — I’m willing to step in and make someone else uncomfortable when asked as a feminist or an ally. I do not expect compensation from marginalized individuals I assist. If anything, I’m giving them labor owed.

Sometimes, though, this unpaid labor is very social and emotional. I do hours of this every week.

This involves:

  • Explaining feminism 101 to a man who could have used Google or asked another man about it (I have plenty of male-identifying allies willing to help!)
  • Edifying social justice issues to people with significantly more privilege than me.
  • Doing further research without further shifting emotional labor onto marginalized people so that I can get answers for someone with more privilege than me.
  • Repeatedly coaching someone through medical issues when I don’t even have insurance myself.

How Much Unpaid Labor Do I Perform in One Week?

Given the above definition, I did 12 and a half hours of unpaid labor last week.

Unpaid Labor Hours in One Week

I worked sixty hours. I put in another four hours of even service exchange and networking.

Paid and Unpaid Labor Hours in One Week

That means I worked for a total of 76 and a half hours. That’s a lot.

But What About Saying No and Personal Responsibility?

Good point there, friend. I need to work on that. The reasons I struggle with this are diverse and complex, but I’m taking steps to set boundaries regarding free business and social unpaid labor.

I accept that my personal and professional brands are one and the same. As a professional storyteller, that carries a great deal of value. People trust me because I’m real with them, and that means revealing some of my not-the-greatest moments and the processes behind how I build myself — and my business — up.

This means sometimes I need to say no to an opportunity to help — or perhaps I have sent you to this page.

What Am I Asking of You?

Are you using my time without giving anything in exchange? Are you financially comfortable, or at least not living paycheck to paycheck? Do you enjoy privileges that I do not (i.e. you’re male; you’re able-bodied)? I ask two things of you:

  1. Please be considerate of others’ time, especially when the person you are speaking with experiences multiple marginalizations.
  2. Please consider offering a service, item, or monetary benefit in exchange for using that person’s time.

Why Is My Time of Value?

To start, everyone’s time is valuable. We only have so much of it. In addition to that, we all know that time is money. With multiple chronic illnesses, sometimes I work comfortably from bed. Other times, I sleep for 15 hours at a time. That’s just the way it works out, and I accept that, but it means I have less time to work with than a fully able-bodied person.

How Can You Help Me in Exchange for My Time?

It’s easy, and not all of it costs money, but it does benefit me monetarily.

  1. FREE: Share my creative efforts. (I post them publicly on Facebook all the time.)
  2. FREE: Recommend my services and expertise to paying clients. Here’s my portfolio! Here are my editing rates.
  3. LOW-COST: Show your thanks monetarily via ko-fi. I appreciate it!
  4. LOW-COST: Support women in geek culture. Help me make games and pay my staff with as little as $1/month to The Geek Initiative Patreon. This is especially recommended if you enjoy our content!
  5. FREE: Do you have Amazon Prime? Great! For no additional cost, you can securely link your Amazon account to Twitch and subscribe to my Twitch channel. You have to re-up monthly, but for just a few minutes of your time each month, you can consistently support TGI and me. That’s right: it doesn’t cost anything, but I get a few bucks.

What Can You Do For Yourself?

Do you also find yourself spending significant amounts of time on unpaid labor while you’re struggling to make ends meet?

If you’re like me, you might have been on the path to becoming resentful of people who didn’t even intend to insult or offend you — people who would have gladly tossed you a few bucks for your time if they knew you really needed it.

Take the unpaid labor challenge. Using the definitions I outlined above, track your time for one week and consider how much unpaid labor you do.

What are the results? I’d love to hear about them in the comments — because I’ve seen this in action, especially among creatives, and I know I’m not the only one in the unpaid labor trap.