Making the move into self-employment nearly two years ago was a relatively easy decision for me; I had just arrived back in the UK after living in Australia and had some savings behind me. I knew there would be times when I would be out of work, but I was excited about pushing myself and making new contacts. I’m extremely lucky that I’ve never really struggled for work during this period - but looking forward now, all I can see is uncertainty.
Being self-employed during the coronavirus crisis is a whole new level of fear. While the government has promised to protect workers and businesses, offering up to 80 per cent of their wages if they’re on a payroll system, these benefits are yet to be introduced for those who work for themselves.
It must be wrong that parliament is suspended before the government has a proper package in place for the self employed.— Chris Bryant (@RhonddaBryant) March 25, 2020
Right now, I have worked booked in - contracted, fortunately - until the beginning of May. After that, I don’t know what will happen. My invoices are certainly being paid slower, and not knowing whether companies will stick to their payment terms is terrifying. I’ve recently moved into a new place, where the rent is more than I’ve ever paid before. When I signed the contract in late January, I didn’t think I’d have any problem paying - but now, I’m worried. Rent breaks are something tenants have been pushing for, but it looks unlikely that these will be announced.
Currently, self-employed people are entitled to claim statutory sick pay (SSP) which is £94.25 per week if they’re out of work with illness. Others will be able to claim employment and support allowance (ESA) from the first day they are out of work at £57.90 per week for under 25s and £73.10 a week for over 25s.
It has recently been announced that VAT payments and self-assessment income tax payments will be deferred until later in the year, while interest-free cash grants are being offered to small businesses. That feels like a small drop in the ocean of a very large problem, and to a single, self-employed person like myself, means very little.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I have work right now, and it looks increasingly likely that public pressure will force the government to take action and help the five million self-employed people in the UK (who make up 15% of the labour market) very soon. Chancellor Rishi Sunak this week told the Commons: "We absolutely understand the situation... and are determined to find a way to support them [self-employed people]".
But for some, it will come too late. Steph, 30, is a senior assistant producer from London whose contract was cut short last week. "The majority of the TV industry are freelancers in whatever capacity - limited companies, people like me who are PAYE who just do short, temporary contracts," she tells Cosmopolitan. "It’s quite difficult because with the government financial schemes, we don’t really fit into a lot of it. We’re not permanently employed so we can’t claim the 80 per cent of our wages.
"I was given two weeks notice on my temporary contract, and now anything I had potentially lined up for after, the production has been pulled. All the roles out there are ones I’m not qualified to do, so I know that - past 31 March - there’s nothing for me.
"Financially I think I’m ok for now, but I can’t claim universal credit because I’ve inherited money which is in savings, in premium bonds. I was hoping to keep those to buy a house eventually. At the moment, because we’re not going out, I’m able to keep myself going for a month or so, after that I don’t know.
"In my industry they’ve really pulled together in that there are support lines there, and tutorials from experts. However, it’s a very, very scary time because we don’t know if the TV industry will collapse, or if I’ll have a job in three months. There’s going to be so many people available to work that it will become extremely competitive, so who knows what will happen."
And for the 900,000* people on zero hour contracts, uncertainty also lies ahead. The pledge to meet 80% of wages applies to everyone who is on PAYE – that is, taxed before they are paid. However, it's currently unclear how the amount will be calculated for those not contracted to work set hours.
The situation has become so dire that The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents gig economy workers, is suing the government over its failure to protect millions of workers during the coronavirus crisis.
"The low paid precarious workers must have the means to follow public health advice and continue to pay their bills and put food on the table," said IWGB General Secretary Dr Jason Moyer-Lee. "Right now, they don't."
Of course, it’s not just about now, either. The uncertainty of this situation could affect self-employment for years to come, as many seek out a more secure form of employment in future. Aliza Sweiry, UK Managing Director at Aquent tells Cosmopolitan: "One of the many knock-on effects of this outbreak is that it has opened people’s eyes to how precarious their income is. Although we expect the government to step in soon to provide some assistance, it’s likely that when this is over job security will be a much higher priority for some, and more people will seek full-time employment over freelance or self-employed work.
“There will still be demand from companies, as they need freelancers so they can easily scale up and down, but supply might be affected as it’ll lose appeal from the contractor’s perspective. Don’t be surprised if there is a whole review of the situation when the outbreak has passed, and stricter enforcement of freelancers’ responsibilities and what they’re entitled to.”
No-one goes into self-employment expecting a constant stream of work and zero money troubles, but we hope that we’ll be treated just like any other worker. Right now, that’s simply not happening - and the knock-on effects are likely to last for years to come.
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