Contractors Face New Normal

Picture: Joan McGuire

Freelance work has picked up, but independent contractors must adjust to new requirements. 

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After caring for her terminally ill mother until her death, and being hit with her brother’s death five months later, Roxanne Theodoroff, a freelance graphic and web designer in Eugene, was forced to change web platforms after a client left a bad review. 

“I came to Eugene to take care of my mother after she had heart surgery, and it was just one thing after another,” she says.

“My brother passed away five months after my mother and I was left with two estates. I had to pass off clients I had been working with for years. My freelancing work took a really hard hit.”  

Theodoroff says her family tragedies were a big struggle, but helped lay the groundwork for coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. Changing platforms encouraged her to update her portfolio. Work has been gradually returning, and she has managed to land enough jobs to keep her afloat. 

“It’s been slow. It’s been real slow,” she says. “But now I’m actually doing okay.” 

A recent report by the Freelancers Union and freelancing platform Upwork found 35% of Americans are self-employed, and that they contribute $1 trillion annually to the national gross domestic product.  

Typically, the self-employed do not have access to sick leave, paid time off or unemployment benefits. 

That changed on April 28, when Congress amended the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act to expand access to unemployment benefits to self-employed workers, contractors and gig workers. 

The expanded program is called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Freelancers can collect unemployment benefits while continuing to work under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, but earnings are  calculated against the benefits received for that week.

“When I heard freelancers could file for unemployment I thought, ‘If it comes through, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll just keep chugging along,’” says Theodoroff. She adds she has not received benefits despite hours on the phone to the unemployment office.

Despite these struggles, she says work has been on the upswing.

“It might be that everybody’s home now and thinking of new ways to make money and they think about a website,” she says. “I picked up a contract just the other day from an agriculture importer. You have your real ups, and your real downs, and your real ‘What am I doing?’ moments.” 

Freelance work that requires entry into the home also saw a sharp decline.

In a survey conducted by freelance handyman association Handyman Startup, which sampled 221 handyman workers across the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, found 83% of home repair workers reported a decline in demand and 59% reporting a large decline.

While some work has returned, social distancing and sanitation are priorities for people seeking contract work.  

Craig Lighthill, a handyman and independent contractor in Grants Pass, says things were hard at the beginning of the pandemic. He did not receive unemployment benefits, or any assistance from federal or state programs.

“There was a huge dip. For one month there was absolutely nothing,” he says. “I was a single dad with no money. I had a kid to feed.” 

Business has picked up since a month ago as clients have become more willing to let people into their homes. But the requirement to wear a face mask is a new normal. 

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