The future of the gig economy
Updated: Sep 30, 2019
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In 2012 I had a real job. Well, sort of. For 10 months I worked for NASDAQ’s internal audit group. Specifically, tech auditing. While I do have a computer science background, I only landed this gig working with experienced tech auditors at a company whose computer security is responsible for a large chunk of society’s financial stability because the CEO at the time, Bob Greifeld, had added NASDAQ to a list of companies working with the USATF Foundation to employ “prospective Olympic athletes.” The concept, which is great, was to place athletes in flexible part-time jobs that allowed them to make money and still train. The idea was to work 20-30 hours per week with unlimited flexibility to take time off. The pay was crap and not in-line with what someone doing tech auditing should be making, but that’s a different conversation.
So, given its unconventional nature, how can I possibly call this a real job? In this case, what I mean by “real job” is that they gave me these magical things called Benefits.
I had company sponsored health insurance for the first time since 2008. It was magical. I chose the option that took $0 out of my paycheck and also deposited over $2000 into an HSA. That was $2,000+ that I could spend on doctors that could fix my nagging case of plantar fasciitis. It was free money and it was amazing. They also gave me this crazy thing called life insurance. I didn’t have dependents at the time, but these days I have both beneficiaries and a life insurance policy that I personally have to pay into once a year.
I also became well versed in unemployment insurance, mostly because it’s something I have never been able to use. Since 2008 I have made too much in freelance income to ever tap into unemployment insurance after leaving a “real job.” However, it was nice to know it was there, just in case the entire floor fell out from beneath my feet.
After I left NASDAQ at the end of 2012, I got to take my health insurance along with me, thanks to COBRA. It was certainly not cheap, and the deductibles were high, but compared to what is now offered on the exchange, it was pretty nice. At least it had out-of-network coverage.
Of course, the ACA became a thing during my last few months of COBRA, so I eagerly started looking at plans, assuming the exchange would create some sort of competition that would make pricing favorable. Go ahead, laugh. That’s fine. I, too, look back and laugh at myself. I still partially blame the ACA for pushing us financially out of NY. Initially, the premiums were the same as what we had under COBRA, but we lost out-of-network coverage and our in-network deductible shot through the roof. Then our deductible stayed at that eye-popping and completely useless level while our premiums creeped up. We then moved to Colorado, where our premiums dropped, but our deductible stayed just as high. Now our premiums in CO have caught up to our premiums in NY. This is such a fun game!
Last night I went to a fundraiser for Greenwood Village representative, Jeff Bridges, headlined by the Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who is most recently famous for speculation that he would be part of a bi-partisan Presidential ticket with Ohio Gov. John Kasich (not gonna happen). Jeff and I went to high school together and my son goes to school in the Greenwood Village district. Someday soon I hope to win $1mil playing Long Game, at which time we will move into the district.
Jeff talked about a few things last night, including automation (he’s a big proponent of self-driving cars) and advancing eduction to align with a growing technology workforce. But what really hit home with me were his comments on the gig economy. He cited a stat of 1/3 of the workforce that is freelance. According to the Freelancer's Union (who I used to get health insurance through before having a "real job"), freelancers now make up 35% of US workers. That is an entire 1/3+ of the working population that does not have an employer providing them those magical things called Benefits. That number is projected to hit 50% by 2020.
During tax reform a couple weeks ago, a GOP leader (no idea who, I looked up at CNN and an old white dude was talking with the name “GOP Leader” under his face in the news banner) had this big shit-eating grin on his face while talking about the magic of bigger paychecks. To paraphrase, he said that people were coming up to him telling him that they won’t really know if they benefit from the new tax code until April 2019 and he that he tells them that employers will get new tax tables early this year and that they will see an increase in their paycheck by February. He appears to not grasp the idea that maybe those people coming up to him with uncertainty about how the tax code will effect them are part of the 35% of the population who indeed won’t know how the tax code effects them for another year+.
I will admit, though, that the self-employment app I use will make tax-code adjustments for 2018 and that it will reflect in what it tells me to pay in quarterly taxes. Seriously, if you are self-employed and want to get the most out of business deductions, download this app. It also has a fantastic mileage tracker.
Another politician who has been patting himself on the back for making life better is the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. In mid-2017, a small Payroll tax was added to the paychecks of New York's W2 employees which funds paid family leave. Currently this deduction is 0.126% of an employee's weekly wage. Notice how I said "employee." In order to qualify for this benefit you have to be part of the shrinking population that has a “real job.”
When I had my son in 2013, my husband and I were both purely freelance. We got incredibly lucky that we had a very lucrative August, right before our son being born in September. We were also incredibly lucky that a chunk of my income could be earned from the comfort of my couch. And by “lucky” I mean that we did not starve to death. I did not take time off work because I was in the thick of campaign season (my choice, no complaints). I took a conference call from the recovery room and had at least two financial reports due when my son was one week old. That was a terrible first week and I would not wish it on anyone. I was exhausted and in pain and had to prop my son up on a boppy pillow so that I could work while breastfeeding.
There is no maternity leave for the 35% of the workforce that is freelance. Now, I can picture Mr. GOP Leader chastising the freelancers of the world for not having an adequate safety net or having children when they are not 100% financially stable. Well, in an ideal world, we would all be financially stable before having kids. However, even the incredibly financially conservative Dave Ramsey says "If you let money determine whether or not you have kids, you might never have them... Children are worth more than any amount of money." And let's not forget Paul Ryan's suggestion that the solution to the social security crisis is for women to have more babies. Spoiler alert! By the time my four year old joins the workforce, we will likely have far surpassed that 50% mark and the odds of him paying into social security are pretty slim because he will most likely be a freelancer.
There are a lot of women who freelance who are smart and/or lucky and save a chunk of money up. There are a lot of women who rely on the other half of their parenting partnership to support them during this time. However, there are also single moms and moms who make the lion's share of the family’s money.
This is not a rare phenomenon. I am currently listening to the audiobook How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. The author lives in NY and is part of a double freelance couple with a young daughter. She delves into the financial struggles they faced after they had their daughter and she stopped working for awhile. It’s a very real and very common struggle and today’s politicians are not addressing it.
Now, to be fair to Cuomo, he had to start somewhere and paid family leave that is funded by paychecks is a good rational way to start. But in this changing economy, it has to go further. Self-employed individuals pay taxes. We pay income taxes and we also pay our own employment taxes. Perhaps tacking a small percentage on there would help fund paid family leave for the neglected 35% of the workforce.
This conversation will have to be continued.... someday I will get into how SAG has brilliantly solved some of these problems and how Donald Trump actually rambled on about something that sort of makes sense, but still isn’t the solution we need. For now I’m going to say that I was overwhelmingly happy last night to hear a politician acknowledge that we have a problem and I very eagerly look forward to seeing if he can come up with solutions and, more importantly, if he can get the rest of the state on board.