By Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, Ph.D.*
I’m on social media more than usual these days since the pandemic outbreak and stay-at-home order went into place. Questions that have been floating around among freelancers, not just in the spiritual communities, but also in the artistic, wellness, and literary worlds, are things like “What are you getting out of this time in quarantine?” “What changes are you making in your life?” “How are you making the best of this COVID time?” “What’s on the other side of COVID-19 for you?”
Sarah** has been a self-employed/independent contractor/small business owner for many years now and has encountered slow periods of work in the past. Freelancers are used to the ups and downs of gig work, but this is the first time she and many other gig workers have experienced a complete shutdown in work opportunities. Sarah’s profession requires close in-person contact which cannot be performed remotely and is considered “non-essential” according to the Stay-at-Home orders issued by her state to reduce the spread of COVID-19. No work also means zero income.
Precarious before COVID-19
Freelance work is inherently unstable, but it can also provide people with some control over when and how they do their job, and with flexibility in how they live their lives, the hours they keep, the clients they choose. “Freelance” is another term — along with “gig worker,” “contingent worker,” “temporary worker” and “contract worker” — used to describe a category of employment that differs from standard (full-time permanent) employment arrangements. Scholars also refer to some of these “non-standard employment arrangements” as “precarious employment.”
Globally, precarious work is unstable (clients or hours can be unpredictable, people can cancel at the last minute, jobs are by the day, or for temporary periods of time). Women, minorities, and immigrants are more likely to fill these kinds of jobs which have lower wages and more dangerous working conditions. In the U.S., non-standard or “precarious” workers rarely receive employer-based benefits: no health insurance or paid vacation or sick leave, and no labor protections including the right to join or organize a union.
Many non-standard jobs characterized as “precarious” are not necessarily a “choice,” but a necessity for people to make an income. Domestic workers (housekeepers, nannies, elder care and other home care workers), gardeners and day laborers, and those that work for temporary agencies in many industries, work from job to job or for multiple clients. Work is often low paid and economically insecure. Job insecurity is a major, recognized work stressor associated with higher risk of chronic illness including, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental health problems. As well as job insecurity, workers in precarious employment arrangements are also more likely to be exposed to other major work stressors such as high job demands, low job control (job strain), high effort-reward imbalance, long work hours, inadequate work hours, lack of recovery time (rest breaks, vacation or sick pay), bullying and other forms of workplace discrimination.
Precarious work in a pandemic
Now, many low-wage precarious workers are at risk of exposure to COVID-19 as part of their jobs or they are unemployed. Many of these workers are undocumented immigrants, so have no access to federal aid or unemployment insurance. In a similar dire situation, gig workers for such tech platforms as Uber and Lyft, and food service delivery workers for GrubHub, Instacart and Postmates, are at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus, but may also have reduced hours because of lower demand, and may not collect unemployment since the services they work for are considered “essential” and are not completely shut down.
Many workers with non-standard employment arrangements, have been struggling for some time to change their status to gain better wages and benefits and more job security. Uber and Lyft drivers have been organizing and fighting their independent contractor status for several years with the large rideshare technology companies, demanding to be classified as employees so they can have labor protections and health care benefits. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is the leading voice in the U.S. for promoting the rights and benefits of domestic workers, including recently creating a “coronavirus care fund” to provide assistance to home care workers, nannies, and house cleaners to help them stay safe at home.
Since early March, as the pandemic was being recognized by public health experts and downplayed by the federal government, clients stopped calling Sarah, and her income evaporated along with them. It was understandable that no one wanted to take the chance of contracting COVID-19, including Sarah. Ineligible for state unemployment insurance (UI) because she was not a “standard” W2 employee, Sarah anticipated that when the CARES Act became law on Friday, March 27, she would receive some financial relief. Like many precarious workers, the nature of the job meant she didn’t have enough savings in the bank to cover the bills for a prolonged period of unemployment. The CARES Act promised to provide $1200 to millions of Americans and to provide unemployment assistance to non-standard employees such as, the self-employed, independent contractors, and gig workers. A month later, Sarah, like millions of other Americans, had still not received a “stimulus check.” Almost two months later she finally did receive it.
Every state administers its own unemployment insurance program, paid into by employers. At the peak in May, about 36 million people in the U.S. had applied for unemployment insurance and now the number of insured unemployed is hovering above 20 million. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), was a new program that administers unemployment assistance to previously ineligible, non-standard workers. Applications to the State of California Employment Development Department were not accepted until April 28. Sarah applied on April 28 after being unemployed for almost two months, and finally received unemployment funds toward the end of May including an extra $600/week “unemployment boost” that was part of the federal CARES Act. She, like millions of others still unemployed, is unsure what she will do once this extra amount is cut off July 31.
During a crisis like this, the consequences of the lack of benefits and other protections for so many workers, are starkly highlighted. On April 10, at the height of the pandemic, Sarah received a letter from MediCal — her main source of health care — telling her she was no longer eligible. Fortunately, she was able to overturn the decision based on her current lack of income, but at the time, she noted the irony.
While many of us are fortunate to be able to continue doing our jobs from home — maybe with some stressful work-life imbalance, being without an income and no savings because of a precarious employment situation is an impossible economic situation. In other advanced industrial economies, non-standard work arrangements may not be so dire, since most countries have universal national health care and comprehensive social safety nets for all workers regardless of employment status. But in the United States, as so many people are being hit hard by the economic and health crisis, one wonders will we learn any lessons as a society and find new and better ways to provide health care and “healthy work” for all types of workers after COVID-19?
“Who knows what’s on the other side of COVID? But I can safely say when we are able to go back to work, I have made the decision to leave the world of self-employment and seek full time work with benefits! Also, while I realize the limitations of being an employee (no flexibility, having a boss, income potential might be capped), I cannot return to life as it was. There is too much uncertainty, not having any kind of safety net, and living in fear of the next global disaster without a sense of security and a more stable work environment. It’s stressful enough when you are dependent on generating your own business to survive.”
- If you want to learn more about work-life balance and its challenges during the pandemic, check out our article, “Blurred Boundaries: Work-Life Balance in the Time of COVID-19.”
- If you want to learn more about burnout, check out our previous article, “The Cost of Burnout: Why We Need Healthy Work.”
*This article was commissioned as part of the Healthy Work Campaign. To learn more and obtain free resources, visit https://healthywork.org.
**Sarah is a pseudonym used to protect her anonymity.
Dr. Marnie Dobson is the Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is also an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) where, for the last 12 years, she has been involved in work stress research, including qualitative, participatory methods, enhancing epidemiological studies and intervention development with several blue-collar working populations including firefighters and urban transit operators. She continues to teach in occupational health classes at UCI and UCLA, as well as publish academic articles and book chapters and present at scientific conferences. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
We would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this article by our colleagues: