When I first signed the contract for my old job in 2014, it seemed like such a godsend. I was a destitute, new single mom who was relying upon the kindness of strangers to put a roof over our heads.
I desperately wanted to get back on my feet and quit living with good Samaritans, but I also wanted to work from home. Although I was new to motherhood, I had this very strong sense that working outside of the home was going to take all of the energy I needed to raise my daughter. So, much to everyone’s chagrin, I resolved during pregnancy to work from home as a writer.
At the time, I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. But I was determined nonetheless. In my mind, it was worth it to struggle for a while until I could find the work I needed.
With the birth of my daughter, I got by on SNAP (food stamps), WIC, and a bit of child support from her dad. I slept on couches when necessary and eventually found a couple with an extra room who was willing to let me stay with them temporarily.
Through everything, I kept talking about my desire to write, researched writing jobs, and insisted that I was going to write from home. You might say I was speaking it over my life.
About seven months into motherhood, all of my talking finally led somewhere. A friend reached out and asked me if I’d like to work for the social media marketing agency that she and her husband were starting up. After reading some writing samples, she sent me my contract.
It was your basic gig economy contract. If I agreed to write for the startup, I was an independent contractor who could quit at any time. Likewise, they could end my contract for any reason. The contract was clear that I was in no way their employee. I would be paid per task: $1.25 for every social media post, $25 for every blog post, and $20 per platform or newsletter “setup.”
To make ends meet, I would have to take on a lot of clients and do a ton of work. I understood this from the start and I was not against working hard. Honestly, I was just so happy to have the opportunity to work from home that I didn’t really care that the job might have its downsides.
Besides, in those days I genuinely trusted my friend (and her husband) to give me a fair shake as long as I was a reliable worker. And for many months, I would say it was a reasonably low stress job.
There were a few things that gave me pause, like when writers were expected to complete unpaid tasks because it was “only copy and paste” work. I thought my time was worth payment, and that copying or pasting content still added up to many hours with multiple clients. This was the case for monthly newsletters, and management didn’t seem to understand the problem when I explained that they were time consuming to create and needed to be a paid task.
They also got rid of the “setup” pay, which meant we had to acclimate ourselves to each new client on our own (unpaid) time.
After about six months of writing for the startup, I moved out of our housemate situation, and quit taking WIC checks or SNAP payments. I was only making about $1,500 a month if I was lucky, but it was enough to scrape by. I attributed everything I had to that job. It’s what got me back on my feet.
Within a year or so of taking the gig, another red flag popped up. They reduced the pay for each blog post from $25 to $10. When management first announced the change, I was very unsettled. I had gotten my earnings up to $2,200 to $2,800 a month depending upon my client load. The pay cut meant I’d need more clients to maintain my earnings.
But I held my tongue and decided to give them the benefit of a doubt. At first, the reason for the pay cut seemed to make sense. Management said that we were getting a brand new automated system and which would mean much less work for each blog.
In reality, though, none of their supposed automations made a lick of difference to me and the other writers. We still had to do the research and write the damn blogs, pretending to be experts in twenty different odd fields depending upon our client load.
Management believed that since we no longer had to stick the blog posts into Squarespace, and instead were putting it into our own new work website, the whole process was easier. Frankly, it was absurd. Trading one website for another doesn’t automate anything. I suspect that whoever was behind the pay cut was either clueless about daily work flow, or they simply didn’t give a damn.
For a long time, I felt like I shouldn’t rock the boat and say anything about the pay cut. I was dependent upon the company to give me enough clients so I could support myself and my daughter. I also felt very insecure about my skills as a writer back then. If I lost my job, I feared that we’d be homeless all over again and nobody else would ever hire me to write.
That writing gig saw me through a couple of moves as I kept working to adjust to motherhood and give my daughter a better life. There was certainly some monotony to the job and even some frustration. Writing social media posts for other people’s businesses was not particularly creative or stimulating work. And since I wasn’t an actual employee, I didn’t have benefits, aside from the benefit of working from home, of course.
It worked out for a few years, until the climate at the company made a dramatic shift. We got a new manager, and with that hire, the company began to treat us even more like employees whenever it suited them.
Obviously, this is a huge problem within the gig economy. I trusted my friends to treat me fairly despite knowing that I didn’t have the protections of an employee. I was naive and didn’t think I needed those protections.
After more than three years of contract work for the company, my resolve to bite my tongue began to slip. I asked one of the fellow writers about her experiences with writing the blog posts and how she felt about the pay.
As it turned out, she had all of the same complaints as me. Ten dollars for one blog post was disheartening when it might take two or more hours to finish one. She even had the same issues with the new manager that my editor and I had; ever since they came onto the scene, we felt like we were under constant criticism and forced to function as employees despite the fact that we were contract workers.
I began doing some research on appropriate pay for the types of blog posts we wrote and found numerous sources indicating that $25 was a fair entry level amount.
In the fall of 2017, I started to get a really bad feeling about my job. I didn’t think it was particularly secure anymore because the climate at work had changed so much. Our new manager had no qualms about emailing us to complete new work in a less than 24 hour window. They also frequently demanded we redo work when a client’s needs changed, or if there was a glitch in the system.
We received zero compensation for those duplicate efforts, and were eventually expected to monitor the queue for all of our clients just to make sure that no posts might become irrelevant before publishing. With two weeks worth of posts in queue for as many as 70 clients, the company was asking for the impossible. That we monitor thousands of posts for free.
After chatting with my editor and fellow writer friend to help gauge my increasingly negative experiences with the company, I decided to quit being such a door mat and speak up for myself. I emailed management to let them know that the work involved in some of the tasks was much more time-consuming than they potentially knew.
I asked if we could open a dialog about the pay and the workflow. To the best of my knowledge, I did this respectfully. I spent a great deal of time editing my correspondence and asking the other contract workers there if they felt the tone was kind or off-putting.
While I knew that management was unlikely to change our pay, I felt that a discussion would help. At the very least, I thought it would give them pause and encourage them to quit treating us like employees and more like contract workers.
Once again, I was utterly naive.
It took me a long time to realize that I was being bullied by management in response to my inquiry about the pay. When it’s happening, it’s so unbelievable that you don’t want to believe it can be true. Besides, the owners of the company were my friends. I blindly believed that everything negative I went through with the company was simply a misunderstanding.
I thought we could work it out.
Surely, with all of their Christian values, they didn’t want to pay working single mothers less than minimum wage, right? They constantly raved about kindness, and I naively believed they would want to at least listen to my concerns.
But I was wrong.
After approaching management to discuss approprate compensation, I was bullied for more than a year. It was subtle at first. They just quit giving me new clients, and when I asked about upping my workload they claimed there weren’t enough new clients coming in. For months, management claimed that new clients were coming… just not yet.
So, I waited. Watched new writers get hired on and get new clients. And silently wondered when I’d get my own new assignments. In social media marketing, there’s quite a lot of turnover with businesses that come and go as they make budget changes. That made it an especially big deal to get smoked out of new clients.
After a few months of getting the runaround, I realized I was having anxiety attacks because I didn’t know how low my client load might go. Every month it was lower, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make rent.
Even then, I thought it could still be worked out, so I emailed the owner of the company (my friend’s husband) to ask if we could chat about my concerns that the company was trying to get rid of me by giving me no more clients.
I have a history of letting people walk all over me, particularly those with some sort of authority over me. It’s horrible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the other end of a “discussion” that’s completely inappropriate, but I’ve been too scared (or uncomfortable) to speak up for myself.
What usually happens is that I sit there sheepishly nodding and silently wondering if I’ve lost my mind. When the conversation ends, it takes time for me to process what happened. That’s how this conversation went with me and the owner of the company. He lied early on in the conversation and said that we writers always knew the blog pay was going to be reduced. Um, maybe they knew, but we sure as hell didn’t.
On one level, I saw that he was gaslighting me. But I didn’t want to believe that could really be the case. I tried giving him the benefit of a doubt. Over the course of our nearly 90 minute talk (which was mostly him talking down to me), he claimed that no one was withholding clients from me, yet he also warned me that I owed a manager an apology for even suggesting that I wasn’t being paid enough for each blog post. “Nobody wants to give a person more work when they’ve suggested that they think they deserve more money.”
By the end of the call, he promised me that I’d get more clients soon, and claimed that I was doing a good job and nobody ever said otherwise. But he also said I needed to adjust my attitude to me more grateful and sweet.
To my ever loving shame, I immediately wrote an apology email to the manager as the owner advised I should. The receiving manager replied that he had never been offended by any of my correspondence, contrary to what the owner had said. But within two weeks, I wasn’t just being freezed out of new client assignments--I began to have clients taken away and given to other writers.
When I asked what was happening, the entire narrative shifted. The new story was that I hadn’t been doing a good job for a long time and that I couldn’t be trusted with new or particularly important clients.
This went on for months. I never spoke to the owner who’d had the call with me again, but the two managers I dealt with were increasingly difficult and made my work life miserable. They accused me of making mistakes for which there would have been proof if I’d actually done those things, but they never supplied any evidence. My editor and I were at our wit’s end with the nit picking and unfounded accusations.
Management continued to bully me and drug my editor into their ridiculous expectations, like to be on call 24/7. It was bad enough to expect me as a writer to constantly go over completedvposts for which I was only paid $0.75 to $1.25 a piece. But my editor only made 25 cents per post she approved. Expecting her to monitor thousands of posts was even more ridiculous.
This is what’s happening, however, in so many startups these days. Managers and business owners forget that the contract workers they’ve hired aren’t actually their employees to micromanage. And the contract workers are often too scared to speak up for themselves for fear of retaliation, like losing the gig altogether.
Personally, I was fortunate enough to quit working for the company in December 2018. But that’s because I decided to take a leap of faith and get out. Over the previous spring, I began working on my own writing career and became determined to leave them behind. I resented the way they withheld clients from me--sometimes claiming it was simply bad timing and at other points accusing me of producing subpar work.
I didn’t want to believe it was bullying, but after so many months of foul treatment from management, I had to accept that things were not likely to change.
It sucked to lose people whom I had considered real friends at one point. My daughter and I used to go to the owners' family dinners on Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving. We sometimes celebrated the Fourth of July together too.
As a last ditch effort, I tried talking to the owner’s wife about the climate of our remote workplace.
That did not go well.
My friend accused me of being unprofessional, making up drama, and shooting myself in the foot. Despite the fact that it wasn’t just me (my editor and at least one other writer had similar complaints), she essentially called me a trouble maker and refused to listen.
It bothers me to this day that I wasn’t more clear and that I didn’t really stand up for myself in the end. Ultimately, I just left. It bothers me that I never stood up to my “friends” and told them what I really thought about their business practices and the way they use their workers.
I’m gong on nearly 18 months since I last worked for that startup and my one regret is not being more brave. I still run into their social media accounts upon occasion and have to stop myself from gagging when I see whatever they’re talking about.
Lately, the company has begun posting “employee spotlights” on Facebook. Nice, right? Well… it’s strange for a business which relies upon independent contractors. Most of the spotlighted “employees” are NOT employees. They’re people who get paid peanuts and sign an annual contract making it clear that they are not employees at all.
This company has very few employees (only those in management), because they have misclassified the folks who work for them and actually keep the business going from day to day. Seeing the nerve they have to lie and call contractors employees when it suits them just seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
And it makes me sick that I was ever afraid of them when they punished me for daring to talk about adequate pay.
What’s the moral of my story? Don’t take shit from people just because you need the money. Stop thinking you don’t deserve better treatment. It doesn’t serve you when you roll over for people who neither care about nor respect you.
The managers and owners tried to shut me up about adequate pay by bullying me into submission. I was supposed to be grateful for the $10 I made on each blog post and pretend like it wasn’t a less than $5 an hour gig.
If I had listened to them in the long run, who knows where I’d be right now. Probably miserable. They treated me like my writing was worthless and acted as if I was easily replaceable. But their revolving door of writers even in the midst of a fucking pandemic (when virtually everyone wants to work for home) suggests that their tactics aren’t working out so well afterall.
Meanwhile, I do get to enjoy a living wage as a writer because I chose to bet on me. I think that’s a valuable lesson. Sometimes, you really need to bet on yourself and quit listening to what everyone says you have to do.
Over the years, there have been many people to tell me I’m irresponsible for going down this unconventional path as a writer. But I reject the dream crushing naysayers in the forms of old bosses and fake friends.
Please, don’t let anyone make you feel inadequate about your aspirations just because they want you to be pliable and dependent upon them. It’s not worth it.