DC Freelancers & Unemployment: COVID-19 Exposed a Hole in a System Built for W2 Employees

On September 16, three DC-based freelancers testified in front of the DC City Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development about how freelancers experienced the economic pains of COVID-19 uniquely, and how the unemployment system used by the Department of Employment Services (DOES) is not set up for how we as self-employed professionals work.

In this three-part series, you’ll hear from each of the freelancers who spoke to make the case for an inclusive unemployment system for ALL workers, including those working for themselves. First up is me, Lisa, the Founder of Freelance DC and a freelance copywriter.

My name is Lisa Kaneff and I am the founder of Freelance DC, a 2,600-member community of individuals who are, were, or wish to be self-employed. First and foremost, I want to thank the Chairperson and her office for their responsiveness and compassion as I frantically reached out for answers when the pandemic hit — and thank the committee for the opportunity to testify about the Freelance unemployment experience today.

Freelancers, contractors, consultants, and other 1099 employees felt the economic impact of the pandemic uniquely. Many of our contracts were quickly dropped and scopes were scaled way back. If our clients couldn’t do their work, we couldn’t do ours. But unlike traditional employees, we didn’t have a company’s HR department to guide us through the unemployment process — and we didn’t know if we’d be eligible for unemployment at all. What we knew for certain was our quarterly estimated taxes would soon be due.

Our tax revenue was too important to the city to lose, we heard, but we didn’t know if we’d be included in the rollout of PUA.

In some ways, I get why it took longer. We don’t work like everyone else. And we haven’t had unemployment available to us like everyone else. Unfortunately, my community was panicking with nowhere to turn but to each other. The posts, comments, and conversations began flying around the community. Over time, we learned that we would be included in pandemic relief. We also learned the system was ill-equipped to handle the nuances of freelance work.

Weekly Continued Claim forms are where we’d run into the biggest problems. Of the 10 questions, one of the most important questions simply doesn’t make sense for freelancers: Did you perform work during the week claimed?

The question per se is easy enough to answer. Except when filling out the forms, the work we perform and the associated revenue is expected to be calculated based on an hourly rate multiplied by hours worked. This is critical to understand: Many freelancers work on a retainer or project-based pay structure. And even for those who do work with clients hourly, it’s simply an impossible calculation to make. That’s because we have varying and ever-changing rates, multiple clients, and, critically, non-billable work to support our business. This question alone is a huge roadblock for freelancers to successfully and accurately apply for relief.

I am privileged. I did not need to request unemployment. I got by. But because of that privilege, and as leader of a growing community of freelancers, I felt responsible to help our members get the answers they were missing so they could get paid.

I pulled together webinars, roundtables, and other resources to give them a fighting chance but the reach of these efforts were limited to our small but mighty community. Again, Councilmember Silverman’s office was instrumental in those efforts and I thank you profusely. It was the single greatest hope we had — that an official knew we as a community existed and that we were struggling. Though, to this day, many are stuck in limbo. They have no idea if their applications were even reviewed.

There is a clear need for the District to pay special attention to freelancers and to clarify the unemployment process for those who are self-employed. Today, I hope, is the first step.

On August 5th, an article was posted on DC Measured, a research publication from the District of Columbia’s Office of Revenue Analysis, entitled, “The Mystery of the District’s Self-Employed.” The author, Susan Steward, tried to quantify the scale of self-employed professionals in our city and even she found it challenging. There’s simply no good single source of data. But here’s what she did find: As of 2017, 54,965 business establishments within the District were registered as self-employed which amounts to 70 percent of all establishments.

That’s a lot of businesses and a lot of voters. Which is why DC’s Self Employed should not be a mystery. We are a critical piece of the vibrancy of our city. We are consultants and creatives. We are hairstylists and interior designers. We build websites and build movements. And yes, we get your groceries and drive you around town. And, importantly, we contribute significantly to the city’s bottom line.

DC is ripe for a buzzing, thriving freelance community. But the city simply does not have the tools needed to meaningfully reach or engage us. As we move into the next phase of the economic recovery, as DOES reviews and updates their processes, and even further, I invite the Council to reach out and work with us to identify areas of concern and opportunity early in the process.

If you want to join Freelance DC’s advocacy efforts, reach out and let us know. And if you’re in the DC area, join our Facebook group to keep up with all things local and freelance-focused.

Lisa Kaneff, The Words Lady

Lisa Kaneff

Lisa Kaneff is a leading voice in freelancing issues and a freelance copywriter with over 15 years of marketing experience. As a results-driven copywriter with a flair for creative, effective content, she does more than make copy sound good, she makes every word work hard to achieve marketing goals. Lisa works through agencies and directly with non-profit organizations to write copy that engages more constituents, raises more money, and helps make lasting change. Learn more at www.idowordstuff.com.