Freelancers are often envied by traditional working stiffs because they can be their own bosses, set their own hours and tell oppressive employers to take a hike. Seemingly gone are the days when they were derided as slackers, flakes, troublemakers and scab labor.

That’s probably because there are now so many of them in America’s growing gig economy: There were about 57 million in 2017 — more than one-third of the US workforce, according to an annual survey on freelancing conducted by the Freelancers Union and UpWork, a global freelancing platform. The self-employed include fledgling entrepreneurs, consultants, contract workers for outfits like Uber and Lyft, models and adjunct professors. Some 25 percent are full-time freelancers while others are full-time employees who freelance part time to make ends meet.

Millennials under 35 comprise 40 percent of the new full-time independent workers and they mostly find work online. They are especially visible in Los Angeles and New York, peering intently into their laptops at chain cafes like Starbucks and in co-working spaces which many rent to ease the isolation and uncertainty that comes from toiling alone without the structure and benefits of a salaried staff job. They have virtually no legal protection against wage theft or tardy payments from deadbeat employers except in New York City (more on that as we go along).

“It can be scary out there,” said Jackie Lam, 36,  a freelance personal finance writer who lives in Sierra Madre and has been freelancing for about four years. “You have to stay on top of your own expenses and (hefty self-employment) taxes. Freelancing isn’t for everyone,” she continued in a phone conservation. “But the pros definitely outweigh the cons for me. It gives me the flexibility to travel and to see my mom more,” she went on, referring to her single Vietnamese mother, a retired nurse. She noted that one of her passions these days is helping other freelancers thrive.

Freedom to Live

Lam, who worked for six years at the Directors Guild of America before striking out on her own, is a leader in SPARK, a networking group for freelancers with chapters across the country that meets each month (freelancersunion.org/spark). It’s an offshoot of the aforementioned Freelancers Union, which is based in Brooklyn, New York. Members join for free and can gain access to health and dental insurance benefits through the union’s own brokerage firm (freelancersunion.org).

Lam’s SPARK chapter gathers at Kleverdog co-working on 418 Bamboo Lane in LA’s Chinatown Central Plaza. There, members get sociable with about 10 to 15 peers who generally talk about their clients, negotiating skills, contracts and legal issues.       

“We meet to solve problems,” Lam said. “Having a community is a big part of success for freelancers.”

Lam, who has short term disability insurance through the Freelancers Union, counts about 15 clients, including Fortune 500 banks and credit card companies. She has written for Forbes and other publications and said she has been asked to speak on personal finances at the Arcadia public library.

She acknowledges that her specialty — money — is likely more lucrative for freelancers than gig work in the arts. Lam declined to state her yearly earnings, but notes she has grown her business “20 to 25 percent” since she started freelancing in 2014.

SPARK attendee Thom Pulliam, 29, a branding strategist for advertising agencies, is also a busy freelancer who lives in the Silver Lake district and maintains a residence in Miami’s South Beach.  Operating under the business website of thompulliam.pro, he puts his annual income at about $150,000 a year before taxes. He claims the money is the same he would make as a staff employee in his industry, even though he works far fewer hours and doesn’t have to spend money on expensive clothes.

“I am spending half the amount of time working than I would if I was a full-time employee,” he said in an email. “So if I look just at my total hours worked in a year as a freelancer, it is equivalent to six to seven months in a full-time job. Meaning I have about 40 percent more free time and off time as a freelancer than I did as an employee, even without having things like guaranteed vacation and paid time off. It’s a much fuller life,” he insisted, stating he has more time to be with family members and to develop other businesses and sidelines, which include running a freelance empowerment tribe (unicorntalent.club).

Pulliam has been freelancing since 2011 and recently took on big-name clients like McCann NYC. He joined SPARK meetings about a year and half ago. “I haven’t gotten any advice, but it’s good being supported and surrounded by other people doing similar things,” he said. “They have a long way to go before they get organized like a union would, but it’s a nice (group) and it’s needed.”

Freelance Isn’t Free

SPARK is the three year-old brainchild of   Caitlin Pearce, executive director of the Freelancers Union, which is based in downtown Brooklyn. “It’s my baby,” she said. “We now have chapters in 30 cities.”

The Freelancers Union  was founded in 1995 by Sara Horowitz and  has about 350,00 members nationwide, most of them in New York state. Half are creatives, Pearce said.

A major coup for FU was helping to  advocate and help draft legislation for the 2016 Freelance Isn’t Free Act, a bill unanimously passed by the New York City Council. Within a year of its implementation, staff at the Office of Labor Policy and Standards, a division of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, recovered about $254,866 in lost wages due to freelancers who had been victims of wage theft. OLPS also goes after hiring parties who do not provide a contract for work starting at $800 or fail to abide by a contract or pay late. In addition, the agency provides a list of low-cost lawyers.

The Freelance Isn’t Free Act is the first legislation of its kind in the US for independent workers. Pearce said a SPARK chapter in Philadelphia hopes to lobby for a similar bill.

In October, her union, operating with a  $475,000 grant from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment,  scored another first — a “freelancers hub”  within a 20,000 square foot building on the Brooklyn waterfront run by the nonprofit Made in NYC Media. The space allotted for union members includes two classrooms, a theater and access to an onsite café. It’s geared solely for creatives in the union who are entitled to four free days a month to work at the hub.

“We sit down with members and explain (the union’s) health insurance. We have events and classes in financial literacy and how to market yourself as a freelancer,” explained Stephanie Alvarado, the hub’s program director. She noted there are also sessions on how to reduce stress.

Pearce said the latter offering is much needed because freelancers have “no built-in structure, no career ladder and no mentors. When you’re on your own, you have to do it all by yourself. There can be huge anxiety,” she observed.

Bright Future

SPARK leaders in the Los Angeles area expressed interest in developing programs similar to those in New York.

“Los Angeles is the second largest hub for freelance work and it would make sense to lobby for (legislation) because the labor laws don’t really protect freelancers — they’re written for people on payrolls,’ said freelancer Liam Moriarty, 34, CEO and co-founder of a legal tech platform called Lawgood, which he runs from a small startup firm in downtown Los Angeles.   

Moriarty, a graduate of Columbia Law School and a former New York City litigator at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, believes the best protection for independent workers is a contract “with teeth.” He said workers should “make sure clients serve up a contract because every year freelancers get stiffed” for thousands of dollars. “Even for smaller projects, if you’re not getting paid, you want to go to small claims court,” he said. “It’s a lot easier if you have a signed contract and can provide it.to make a stronger case. I’d love to see other cities or counties start their own laws.”

Creating such laws in the Los Angeles area is not likely to be an easy task, said freelancer Chad Eschman, 34, a SPARK leader who operates a Los Angeles multimedia company called Trap Street. “The larger legislative issues are handled by the FU staff back in NYC, and are not part of SPARK,” he contended in an email. “I do think that the local SPARK chapters will eventually get involved with issues like benefits and payment laws, but that is going to be largely up to the individuals in each city. FU does not provide us funding or staff to tackle these things in any way, so if we want to change things in LA/ we are currently on our own. But we do hope that FU will expand its reach.”

Elle Toussi, a 33-year- Los Angeles-area journalist who has been a leader in a SPARK group, is hopeful that change is on its way for vulnerable freelancers. She serves on the board of directors of the Freelancers Union, and plans to call on members to lobby Los Angeles City councilmembers to “take steps” to produce protective legislation for independent workers that duplicates some of the advances made in New York.

“We’ve just had a (national) election and I’d like to raise consciousness,” Toussi said, noting she will be checking out incoming new council members. “In the next few months, we need to reach out and make them aware that this is an important issue.”

Toussi is an optimist. She believes that people who help freelancers respond well “when you show sincerity and good intentions.”

Jackie Lam of Sierra Madre puts it succinctly this way:

“The future favors freelancing.”