December 7, 2015; Washington Post

For the millions of part-time and contract workers who now earn their living in what has been called the “gig economy,” achieving the level of safety and security that has long been provided in the traditional workplace has been a challenge. Last month, we ended a report on initial efforts toward that ended with a question for policy makers. Earlier this week, members of New York City’s City Council took a first step toward this objective.

The proposed legislation, the “Freelance Isn’t Free” bill, seeks to protect contracted workers from employers who refuse to pay them for work done. “Independent workers are one of the fastest growing sectors of the workforce and the backbone of New York City’s economy—but they’re getting stiffed out of thousands of dollars every year by deadbeat companies,” said Freelancers Union’s founder and executive director, Sara Horowitz.

While, as freelancer and young professional Rachel Northrop told the Washington Post, “regular employees at least have some administrative recourse if a company shorts them on wages, being a contractor means hav[ing] to [go] to small claims court in order to collect. Non-payment paralyzes the most motivated sector of people, who are willing to work on their own schedule, be independent and self-sufficient.”

The proposed legislation would require all employers to put contracts in writing, impose civil and criminal penalties for taking longer than 30 days to deliver payments, and award double damages plus attorney’s fees to contractors who’ve been stiffed—similar to the protections now enjoyed by regular employees.

The bill’s list of endorsers provides some insight to the diverse nature of the workforce for whom a new safety net seems necessary:

Many of the city’s coworking spaces and tech schools like General Assembly…Make the Road New York, which works mostly with the city’s low-income Hispanic population….the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose housekeepers and nannies sometimes work on contract and don’t have the resources to sue when employers don’t hold up their end of the deal…[as well as] on-demand services like Uber and Taskrabbit.

“Independent workers come from many different socioeconomic backgrounds but they’re vulnerable in similar ways. Whether you’re a day laborer, a freelance journalist or a self-employed CPA— if you work on your own, you’ve probably been a victim of wage theft at some point in your career,” said Hector Figueroa, President of 32BJ SEIU. “That’s why we’re coming together in this coalition. The union movement was built on solidarity and strength in numbers and that’s how we’ll win independent workers the equal protection they deserve.”

New York City Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn, sponsor of the legislation, has said, “It’s clear that there are some companies that have made it a business practice to not pay freelancers. I see this as one critical step in one broader project of building protections for workers in the independent economy.” It is but a first step toward creating a comprehensive safety net.—Martin Levine