Freelancers should unite for national paid family and medical leave

Jul 13, 2021

Earlier this year, entrepreneur and hair stylist Rubi Jones started SALON CARE, a project focused on the role that hairdressers play in society. Her first campaign, #Beauty4PaidLeave, unites beauty professionals and their clients in support of national paid family and medical leave for all.

As an advocate and expert focused on paid leave professionally, I'm inspired by Rubi’s campaign because it is motivated by passion, personal experience, altruism, and outrage. I’m hopeful that Rubi’s courage will inspire other independent workers to get involved in the fight to win paid leave for all.

Freelancers Overwhelmingly Lack Paid Family and Medical Leave

Like most workers, Rubi did not have paid leave when she became a parent. As she told Vogue earlier this summer, Rubi worked while pregnant until she was nearly at her due date and returned to work just four weeks after giving birth. She found her return to work physically impossible and pulled back for a few more months. In her words, “Hairdressers can take time off to care for a new child, our loved ones, or ourselves when ill, and we can do the math of how many haircuts we need to do when we return to get back on our feet. This is invisible labor that we don’t need to be doing.” She is right.

The United States is the only high-wealth country that does not guarantee any form of paid leave. Rubi’s research uncovered the sobering statistic that 99.4% of all salon workers are excluded even from the unpaid leave protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Nationwide, across all professions, at least 44% of traditional employees, including those in small companies, those who work part-time or less, and those who are newer to their jobs lack any employment protections under the FMLA. With the exception of the soon-to-expire Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and the ability to buy into paid leave programs in a few U.S. states, freelancers have no income protections when a serious family or medical need arises.

Without job protection or pay, millions of people across the United States return to work before they or their child are ready. Nearly one in four mothers return to work within two weeks after giving birth. At the other end of the family care spectrum, family members too often miss a parent’s last days or the ability to help a loved one through treatments and recovery for serious health issues because they do not have paid or even unpaid leave.

Congress is Considering Comprehensive, Permanent National Paid Family and Medical Leave

Rubi is one of 57 million workers in this country who are independent contractors, freelance business owners or temporary workers. Rubi and freelancers everywhere have an important role to play this summer and fall as Congress crafts and works to pass a jobs and families package that should – that must – include paid family and medical leave for all.

A national paid family and medical leave plan is part of a large federal jobs and families bill that Congress is developing now. The President and Rep. Richard Neal, the powerful chairman of the U.S. House Ways & Means committee, have put forward proposals modeled on successful state programs. Enacting one of these plans would be historic and touch nearly every household in America. Congress will likely vote on the package this fall.

Both the President’s plan and the Neal plan propose a new, publicly funded benefit that contractors and freelancers – alongside all full-time and part-time workers – with requisite earnings and work history would have access to. They would guarantee all workers of all genders up to 12 weeks of paid time away from their jobs to care for a newborn or newly adopted child; to care for a seriously ill, injured, or disabled loved one; or to treat or recover from their own serious health issue. The paid leave plans would also cover leave for certain military caregiving purposes. Workers would receive up to 85% of their usual wages, based on their recent earnings history. For freelancers and others without a traditional “boss,” wage replacement would be based on recent earnings. Access would be universal across the country and not dependent on geography, job, or employer.

Make Your Voice and Freelancers’ Needs Known in the Fight to Win Paid Leave for All

Although paid leave is closer to becoming a reality than ever before, there are many details yet to define and political hurdles to overcome. Freelancers’ voices and stories are needed now ensure that paid leave is prioritized in a final jobs and families package and that freelancers’ needs and experiences are reflected in the details of a final policy.

Take action today by reaching out to your member of Congress and U.S. Senators to ask them to prioritize paid leave in the jobs and families bill. If you’ve ever needed paid leave, tell them your story – whether you had it or not and what impact or effects your experiences had on you, your family and your work.

If you’re inclined to go deeper, ask your representative for a policy that fits your needs, including:

· Program eligibility rules that work for freelancers, so that your earnings and work history are counted and entitle you to access paid leave.

· Coverage of all serious health and family care reasons, so that you can use your national paid leave benefit to care for a new child, a loved one with a serious health issue, or yourself. Freelancers’ average age is 40, right around the median age of people nationwide caring both for young children and older adults. According to Freelancers Union data, 46% of freelancers are already caregivers to a loved one, and half are younger than 38, potentially considering or about to start trying to have children. Covering the full spectrum of care needs is a crucial element of a paid leave plan built to serve workers’ needs.

· A meaningful number of weeks or months so that you can deal with your serious personal or family need and then get back to your job or your work.

· Wage replacement that minimizes your hardship and risk, with benefits based on a substantial share of your recent earnings and self-employment income.

· Resources and attention to efficient and transparent program administration so that you know where to apply for benefits and when you will receive them.

Stay tuned for more ways to work with the Freelancers Union and other freelancers like you to get involved in the fight to guarantee paid leave for all.

Vicki Shabo

Vicki Shabo is Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at the Better Life Lab at New America.