For Freelancers, Taking Time Off for a Baby Is Risky


Good morning.

Welcome to my farewell edition of With Interest. I’m taking a few months off for maternity leave, so this will be my last dispatch for a while. And since we’re changing things up, today I’m departing from the usual news to focus on a business-related topic that’s been on my mind for the past nine months: how to take family leave if you’re a freelance worker, as I am.

This question is increasingly pertinent as freelancers (also known as self-employed workers, independent workers, contract workers or gig workers) make up a growing chunk of the U.S. labor force. About 35 percent of American workers freelanced in some capacity in 2019, according to the latest data from Freelancers Union and Upwork. And just under one-third of that group — about 16 million people — freelanced full time, meaning they didn’t do it on the side of another job that might offer benefits (say, paid time off to care for a newborn).

If you’re currently freelancing or thinking about it, here’s what to know about your options for family and medical leave, and what other solutions may lie ahead.

I quit a nice, stable job in 2017 so I could freelance full time, and I mostly love it. There’s more flexibility, fewer annoying meetings and arguably better job security because I don’t have all my eggs in one employer’s basket.

My situation is not unusual. The Freelancers Union study found that 60 percent of freelancers started doing it by choice (not, for example, because they were laid off or couldn’t find a full-time position). And half of them view it as a viable long-term career option.

Still, there are some serious downsides to freelancing, like not receiving employee benefits or job protections. (I have the great luck of getting my health insurance through my spouse’s company, which is obviously not available to all freelancers.) Independent workers are also not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that allows eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons, including the birth of a child or care for a sick relative. Some states — including New York, where I live — require employers over a certain size to offer paid family and medical leave, but freelancers don’t qualify for that, either.

So what protections are freelancers eligible for, should they need to take time off for family or medical reasons? The answer is not many, and it depends on where they live. A handful of states (including New York, California, Washington and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C.) have enacted programs that offer paid family and medical leave coverage to freelancers, and a few more (Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado) have passed similar measures that will take effect over the next few years.

These programs are better than nothing. But they still leave a lot to be desired, said Rafael Espinal, the executive director of Freelancers Union.

“The available programs are very limited, and there are huge barriers to access because many of them require a certain amount of time and buy-in from the independent workers before they can access the benefits,” he said.

In New York, for instance, freelancers must buy a paid leave policy within 26 weeks of becoming an independent worker. If they buy a policy outside that window, they will need to pay the premiums for two years before they have access to the benefits. They must also have a disability plan or an insurance carrier to qualify for the program. Other states have shorter waits or none at all, but most are still laden with red tape and require freelancers to pay into their plans for a certain period.

On a more positive note, the monthly premiums for these plans are relatively low. Most are calculated as a small percentage of the worker’s freelance income, usually between 0.5 and 3 percent, said Sherry Leiwant, a co-president of A Better Balance, an organization that advocates for paid leave.

“They are so much less expensive than any disability insurance plans you’re going to find on the private market,” she said.

So let’s say I planned my life impeccably (ha!) and started paying into New York’s family leave program for independent workers two years ago. Starting this week, I would be eligible to tap into those benefits, which would provide 67 percent of my average weekly income for up to 12 weeks. That’s certainly better than what I’m actually doing (and what most people do), which is to work as much as possible until my due date and then live off savings during my leave.

The takeaway is that if you’re a freelancer and live in a state that offers one of these paid leave programs, it’s never too early to explore your options, Ms. Leiwant said.

“If you think you’re going to have a baby at some point, you can do the math and decide whether it’s going to be worth it for you to opt into a program,” she said. These plans also cover varying degrees of non-child-related family and medical leave, so even if you’re definitely not going to have children, they can come in handy.

Still, many independent workers don’t bother, and it’s easy to see why. “When you’re starting out as a freelancer, there are so many costs that you have to consider,” Mr. Espinal said.

It’s also important to note that these programs do not provide job protections. No employers are legally obligated to continue or renew contracts for independent workers who take family leave, unless the contract specifically states otherwise. I’ve handled this thorny issue by having a series of frank conversations with my editors about how we’ll manage my time off, but technically, they have every right to change their minds at any time.

The United States has a lot of room for improvement on paid family leave, to put it mildly. It is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have a national program for paid parental leave. What’s even weirder is that it enjoys bipartisan support — President Donald J. Trump endorsed a version of paid family leave proposed in 2019. A 2020 poll by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that 75 percent of voters were in favor of a national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all workers, including 87 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans.

So if it’s so popular, what’s the holdup? As you may expect, Congress is conflicted about how to pay for it. The 2019 proposal, which withered on the vine, required no federal funding. Instead, it would have required parents to tap into their future child tax credits to pay for their leave (essentially borrowing money from their future selves).

But now, President Biden has made paid family leave a central part of his American Families Plan, which would be funded by tax increases on high earners. His proposal would be phased in over 10 years, and create a national paid family and medical leave program that would guarantee workers up to $4,000 a month for 12 weeks.

The American Families Plan does not specify whether it would cover freelancers. But pandemic relief benefits showed a rising federal recognition of the essential role of independent workers in the economy. Freelancers qualified for federal pandemic unemployment assistance benefits, so it would not be a huge leap of logic for them to be eligible for federal family leave policies.

If Mr. Biden’s family leave proposal does eventually become law, it’ll obviously be too late for me. But I hope that others in my position won’t have to navigate these same uncertain waters in the future.



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