Freelancing in your future?

Rise of independent workers highlights challenges facing today's US labor market.

She calls herself a "permalancer."

Technically, Melora Soodalter freelances for a living, but after three years working practically full time in the cubicles known as "freelance row" at HBO in New York, she has landed an office of her own. "After a while, they're like, 'We might as well put her someplace,' " she says, taking a break from producing a promotion for "Six Feet Under."

For her, it's the perfect blend of freedom and stability. But this growing segment of workers - running the gamut from dog walkers to accountants - faces challenges, as well.

Some freelancers are former full-time employees who feel forced into more unstable jobs by shifts in the economy. And even those who choose this lifestyle share the quest to find employee benefits, especially affordable health insurance, outside the structure of traditional employment.

Such issues should concern all Americans, experts say, because what freelancers and other temporary workers are experiencing may foreshadow what's to come for a larger segment of the labor force in the United States.

"Even if you're a traditional worker, it's starting to look a lot more like freelancing, as you have to start paying for and being responsible for your own benefits," says Sara Horowitz, founder of Working Today, a nonprofit organization that provides health insurance in New York City and lobbies nationally on behalf of independent workers. "The world has changed, and no worker can anticipate that 25-year job tenure."

Measuring growth in freelancing is difficult because it's not fully captured in government employment surveys. In 2001, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that there were 5.4 million contingent workers (those who say their jobs are temporary). It also reported categories that can overlap with that group: 8.6 million (6.4 percent of the workforce) defined themselves as independent contractors, 633,000 were contract company workers, and 1.2 million were temp-agency workers.

The BLS has not updated that survey. But economist Paul Harrington of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies estimates that between the end of 2001 and the end of 2003, self-employment increased by about 1 million, and independent contracting or under-the-table jobs increased by 1 million to 1.5 million.

Much of this growth has to do with the economic cycle, which recently has left many people unable to find the traditional employment they would prefer, Mr. Harrington says. But even as the economy improves, he says, a permanent shift is taking place: "This is a continuation of the way work is organized, so we are seeing a growing share of people moving into temporary and contingent kinds of work."

The most obvious challenge: benefits. To gauge how difficult it is for independent workers to afford health insurance, Working Today surveyed more than 4,000 of them in New York. It found that their average income is $45,000 - too much to qualify for government health assistance but not enough to pay the $521 monthly premium for an individual standard HMO plan. Nearly 47 percent said they went without health insurance for some portion of the past two years.

Ms. Horowitz launched Working Today in 1995 and set up a way to tie health insurance to the type of work people do rather than to an employer. (The organization recently added "nanny" to the list of categories.) Because they are now pooled together, members can get coverage for as little as $286 a month. And if they switch to a job with benefits and later return to freelancing, it's easy to requalify.

"Our model is one of portability and mobility. We are the vehicle by which they don't ever lose their insurance," Horowitz says. In some ways, it resembles a union model, but it serves a population that isn't allowed to unionize because it lacks a relationship with a single employer. Working Today also hopes to offer portable pension benefits.

"Most of my friends who are freelancers do not have insurance.... It's crazy," says Caroline Schutz, a Web/multimedia designer who recently joined the staff of Comedy Central after freelancing for several years. She says she was "thrust into freelancing by default" when the tech bubble burst. After bouncing between four health insurance carriers, she found Working Today. Its plan, she says, "is the best deal out there, but it's still really pricey."

A musician on the side, she enjoyed the flexibility of freelancing, but she's relieved to finally have a job with benefits again. "In your 20s, it's glamorous to be poor, but not so much anymore," says Ms. Schutz, now 36 and engaged to a fellow musician.

From Terri Lonier's vantage point, the desire for self-employment is on the rise, and it's been steadily gaining respect over the past decade. As founder and president of Working Solo in New Paltz, N.Y., she helps people who want to translate their skills and passions into a business. When she first became self-employed in 1978, "people used to say, 'Oh, Terri, it's too bad you can't get a real job.' And now people are looking at this not only as a viable alternative, but as something that can be quite favorable."

Companies' experience during the late 1990s "taught them the value of working with independent contractors and how to integrate them into their larger workforce," Ms. Lonier says. "The walls of the corporation are becoming much more permeable."

But some temporary work arrangements leave too much room for exploitation, say analysts at the National Employment Law Project in Washington. Employers sometimes misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying benefits, for instance. Laws have been proposed in California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and elsewhere to strengthen the definition of independent contractors or set up penalties for such misclassification.

To some observers, efforts to unionize independent workers or to preserve more-traditional employment structures don't take into account the broader benefits of allowing businesses maximum flexibility. Many employees might prefer the stability of continuing their current jobs until they retire, says Marvin Kosters, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, but "they probably would be unhappy with the lower living standards they would have in that kind of economy. It is awkward to adapt to change, but change is an inevitable part of an economy in which we can do more things with fewer workers and introduce new technology."

Despite the uncertainty it can bring, many independent workers are indeed happy with their lifestyle. Mitchell Hartman, a freelance commercial artist, says he doesn't see himself working for a single studio again, because that can lead to stagnation, not to mention the hassles of office politics.

But even for people who are happy, organizations like Working Today provide benefits they appreciate - everything from educational workshops to discounts at Zipcar, a by-the-hour rental agency. Mr. Hartman likes to keep an eye on the group's newsletter.

"It's nice to have a community of people to talk with in similar situations," he says. "Freelancers have their own code amongst themselves, a community of getting together and helping each other out."

A 'jagged existence' with many job titles

Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum is the epitome of a freelancer, working in one of the most expensive cities in the world. She's a composer and a music teacher - traveling to as many as five public schools in New York each week. She's also the coordinator of a department at her alma mater, Juilliard. And then there's always work to be done with the nonprofit arts organization she cofounded, VisionIntoArt.

Ever wonder how freelancers, and artists in particular, survive in New York City? Ms. Kroll-Rosenbaum offers one glimpse into the hard work, flexibility, and abundant creativity needed to succeed.

"What it boils down to is a lot of running around.... It's a very jagged existence," she says, sitting next to the contrasting placidity of the reflecting pool outside Juilliard at Lincoln Center. "All the real making-art stuff happens at 3:00 in the morning."

One of her current jobs is to arrange a series of musical rounds based on presidential speeches for the Library of Congress. She also helps public school students create their own pieces of music as part of the New York Philharmonic's young-composers program. "We tell the kids, 'You are the composers, we are the scribes.' ... That's probably one of my most fulfilling jobs," she says with an ebullience that hints at how she can work late into the night.

Because so few of her artist friends can afford health insurance, they've come up with "an incredible collection of home remedies," she says. And a good number work at Starbucks, where part-time employees can get benefits. Kroll-Rosenbaum's mother pays the bill for the insurance she gets through the freelancer organization Working Today.

Piecing together jobs to make ends meet "pretty much consumes me," she says. Her personal life usually waits until after 11 p.m.

But work and socializing do blend. "With VisionIntoArt, a lot of the people in it are my friends.... Most freelancers somehow have to integrate their social connections ... with what they do," she says. "You only become a freelancer if that's who you are at some level. It's a reaction to economic issues, but there's also some part of you that just does that."

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