New York congressional candidates spoke out on freelance issues

Jun 18, 2020

On Monday, June 15, the Democratic primary candidates for New York’s 12th Congressional District (which covers much of the East Side of Manhattan, Roosevelt Island, Western Queens, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg) joined Freelancers Union President Rafael Espinal for a virtual forum on the issues at stake in this year’s election.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Peter Harrison, Suraj Patel, and Lauren Ashcraft all joined the conversation, which can now be viewed on our YouTube channel.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who has held the seat since 1993, is currently the chair of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Reform. She highlighted her long history in Congress and her role in passing the CARES Act, which included historic unemployment insurance protections for nontraditional workers, and the passage of the HEROES Act, a second stimulus package that passed the House but is currently being held by the Senate. One of the components of the HEROES Act is $100 billion set aside for rent assistance for low-income renters, plus an extended moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for those in federally funded housing.

Peter Harrison, a housing activist and professor of information technology at Baruch College, has been a resident of the district for 14 years, and began his activist work when he organized his rent-stabilized neighbors in Stuyvesant Town, who were subject to a harassment campaign by their landlord. He has worked as a policy advisor on housing issues for Data for Progress, which contributed to the housing platforms of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Julian Castro, as well as the national campaign Homes Guarantee. Having been a director of the CUNY Startups Accelerator, Harrison says he has a deep understanding of the challenges self-employed people face.

His platform also includes a first-of-its-kind proposal for free public transportation and expanded bike and pedestrian access, which would make New York city greener as well as more affordable. He acknowledged that future federal stimulus payments should include undocumented workers, and he emphatically asserts the need to cancel rent for the duration of the pandemic. Harrison highlighted the need for universal safety nets like Medicare for All, housing guarantees, and Education for All, which would allow labor unions to advocate for better quality-of-life benefits for their members.

Suraj Patel, a lawyer and professor of business ethics at NYU, ran in this district two years ago, when he was Rep. Maloney's only opponent and garnered 40% of the vote. He supports a job-seeker’s allowance that would act like unemployment insurance for those who are looking for employment, including freelancers. He spoke in strong support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and is a supporter of Corey Booker’s Baby Bonds plan, which would help combat the racial wealth gap by providing children in lower-income families with an “opportunity account” of up to $50,000 by age 18.

Patel said he supports canceling student debt as well as implementing free education through college, eradicating the for-profit college system, and changing the way professional and grad school debt is repaid, essentially tying payments to the graduate’s income and ability to find a job within that professional field. He highlighted the fact that PPP failed because it is tied to the traditional banking system, which leaves out many MWBEs and those in underserved communities, and he advocates for the Federal Reserve to create a bank account for every American.

Lauren Ashcraft, a comedian and longtime freelancer, highlighted that as a performer, “I’ve been paid in every way possible,” drawing attention to the struggle many freelancers face to be compensated fairly for their work. When describing her personal experience as a freelancer, Ashcraft illustrated the real-world vulnerability of having healthcare tied to employment and losing access to care as a result of losing a job.

A longtime disability rights activist, she uses her platform to advocate for accessibility in New York, where the majority of the subway system is inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs. She supports Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and canceling rent. She also called for the end of the War on Drugs and to defund the police, ending the military-industrial complex that gives local police forces tanks and rocket launchers while public education goes unfunded.

Ashcraft was the only candidate to acknowledge the thorny nature of the misclassification issue, applauding the legislation that some states are working on to protect those contract workers who are exploited by employers that refuse to give them the rights of employees, while asserting that true freelancers must be recognized as a legitimate workforce under labor law. Many of these issues, she says, could be solved by universal safety nets like Medicare for All, unlinking health care benefits from employers and providing basic protections to all workers, so that companies would have no financial incentive to misclassify.

Ashcraft, Harrison, and Patel all drew attention to the fact that NY-12 is one of the most unequal districts in the country, with many low-income constituents of color living in public housing, including the Queensbridge Houses, while those on the Upper East Side are among the top 0.01%, and they discussed their plans for racial justice. All of the candidates said they would support a federal version of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act.

New York's primary election is June 23, 2020, and early voting is open now. (You can find where to vote early here - it's not the same as your usual polling place.) If you have an absentee ballot, it must be postmarked by June 23 in order for your vote to be counted.