Blog,  Freelancing

What you need to know about freelancing in Australia and COVID-19

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the workforce in Australia. The current effective unemployment rate is something around 9.3%.

As more people get to return to work after lockdown and industries recover, the numbers will go down. But for many people and industries, it’s going to be a long hard and slow slog. For many there are no options but to regroup and go off in a different direction.

This then has some consequences:

  1. People may become kinder – if they were previously secure in their work and had no idea or understanding of what challenges people in insecure work and situations faced, well now they do so hopefully this makes them a little bit more aware and compassionate and we see this follow through in a big way with shifts in community mindsets and actions and things like how we consume, what we value and how we vote and who we choose to protect when we do.
  2. It highlights a lot of misconceptions and myths around alternative forms of work as people start jumping into these forms of work without realising that it might set them up for more risk. That includes freelancing and the myth that it is easy. I had to disabuse a friend of that notion just the other day. A lot of people may think that because you work for yourself and work from home and have no one to answer to that everything is easy and fine for you. And honestly it is not. The hardest person to answer to is yourself.

Yeah ok Mari, what’s your point?

Freelancers were massively affected by COVID-19 and the lockdowns

My point is that freelancing isn’t easy and that when the lockdowns started, the MEAA, an union that has members that are mostly freelance across all its sections, saw pretty much way over three quarters of its membership lose work. They were all mostly freelancers, whether they were actors, crew, journalists or musicians.

Certain freelance journalists and photographers found themselves stuck because they had to move around or travel for work and it took awhile to get confirmation that they could do so for work purposes. Whereas many bigger organisations had already sorted that out with the authorities on their workers’ behalf. As a freelancer you have to work this out yourself or call the union. People called and emailed me to ask if this was possible.


Freelancing was already hard even before COVID-19

My point is that on freelancing mailing lists, even before COVID-19, the struggle to make a living was real and the extremely small percentage of those who had been managing to do just that saw their income disappear come COVID-19 and lockdowns.

As I have pointed out several times, I am lucky if I make $10,000 from freelancing per year. But I am frugal and I save and have no dependents and so I make enough to cover my costs and then some and have savings to fall back on. My work did not suffer because I have set up different income streams. I was never able to have the luxury of only focusing on journalism as a freelancer because I would not have survived if I had done so. So having many different things I could do and that I have been setting myself up to be able to do for many years now, enabled me to move between them.

Which wasn’t that different to a normal year. I have to pitch for journalism work while I am editing books or mentoring people. I can’t just pitch and just do that.

The people who struggled during COVID-19 were the people who had thrown everything into one basket – that was just how they set up their work because perhaps they started freelancing at a time when that was possible. They didn’t just pick journalism, they specialised in a niche. Or they needed to maintain a certain level of income and could not meet it.

But it has for the majority of freelancers, always been a juggling act and a struggle.


Freelancing does not operate in a vaccuum but people seem to think it does.

Freelancing does not operate in a vaccuum. But many people view it initially as something that does. They buy into the idea that it means sitting at home, away from everything, working and earning, not having to commute, not having to deal with office politics and so on. Cushy life, huh?

But just because you work from home, doesn’t mean your clients do. Where does their money come from to hire you? If they have no cash, you aren’t getting hired or paid.

Sometimes people jump in without thinking about this.

The Institute of Professional Editors is currently putting together a survey to find out how COVID-19 affected freelance editors. There are bound to be some who say their client numbers dropped because their clients didn’t have money.

If their clients were organisations hard hit by COVID-19 and the lockdowns, then there would be no money to pay them. Ditto if individual clients had been laid off and stepped down.

PR freelancers struggled as their big clients, festivals and events organisations, had to cancel plans due to restrictions. Journalists struggled as entire sections of papers and publications closed down and the budget to pay freelancers was frozen so the papers and publications could weather through the storm of decreased ad and subscriber revenue.

I am not even sure the Australian public is aware that in the space of a couple of weeks several Australian arms of online publications like Buzzfeed closed their Australian operations entirely, making many journalists redundant and many more with even less clients and places to write for.

You cannot freelance successfully if you are unaware of the domino effect and can’t prepare as best as you can for it.


The law is not always on the freelancers’ side

Even many in-house journalists don’t understand this. Freelancing does not mean a steady paycheck from the paper you contribute to the most with all the benefits. That’s a work from home arrangement for a still in-house employed journalist.

Freelancing means running a business by yourself and being classed as an independent contractor responsible for all the costs of doing so.

It means that while the law says you can set your own rates, it doesn’t enforce clients to abide by them.

What that means is that when papers and publications don’t like your rates they can walk away and hire someone who will work for way less. This is meant to increase competition but what it means is that publications have a lot of power to say “Hey twenty cents per word and no super etc” and you feel pressured to agree because the work opportunities are few and far between and there are many other writers out there. But forty bucks for a 200 word piece that took you a couple of hours to research? Not a good idea.

You want 50 cents at least per word and super and payment on submission not on publication in order to keep a roof over your head. $100 is better than $40 for a 200 word piece that might be the only yes to a pitch that you got for that week. $200 would be ideal to account for the rate of acceptance vs rejection of pitches and to make sure you had money for super etc. But that isn’t what happens.

None of this therefore helps freelancers in this industry at least keep a roof over your head.

The law does help once you and a client have agreed to something in writing or email – they have to abide by it. If you provide them with an ABN they have to pay you in full. If they agreed on a date to pay you by, you can chase them up if they don’t.

But it’s getting them to agree to good conditions and rates and trying not to sign contracts that state that they can edit your work as they please but that you are responsible if it is defamatory, that is the hard part.

And the superannuation part is murky and gray. It is not clear when and where it applies. In some cases, you are owed super by the client. In other cases it is supposed to be built into your rate which by the way you can often barely charge because clients won’t agree to it.

Can we change this legislation for the better? Well that was what the Change The Rules campaign was about.

The Liberals and various other political parties however don’t want this act changed. Why? It doesn’t benefit big business.

This pushback against making the law fairer then gives employed workers no option but to keep going back into in-house employment on increasingly unfair and insecure terms and pay because the freelancing option is so risky and income insecure and legally not that well protected an option for them. Think about the times when people are made redundant but then offered their roles back on a lower pay grade. That’s still better than risking less income and more uncertainty than freelancing.

And it allows big business to slim down their costs and increase their profit margins.


Anything changing is probably going to happen much slower than you anticipate it to or in the blink of an eye which will leave you scrambling

I don’t mean to scare you.

Freelancing, to me, means embracing and getting used to, if not comfy with, a certain level of uncertainty. Many are in denial about this and hence there was a lot of weeping and wailing come the lockdowns and that is ok too – they had not had to face that circumstance before.

One big change that happened quickly is the whole attitude to working from home changed. Another quick change is that a larger sector of the population has finally understood what it is like to be income insecure and be part of the precariat workforce and be on the dole and has hopefully as a result stopped buying into rhethoric and demonising the unemployed and those seeking welfare.

You also have to accept and expect that a lot of these people once they are financially secure again will probably forget all about this stuff and go back into their old modes of thinking.

But a lot of other changes are going to be slow to occur. Glacially slow by your expectations. You may have to accept that the changes you want to see occuring, will occur but just maybe not in time for you to benefit from it.

All of this makes it hard to freelance. You have to constantly battle against attitudes and misconceptions in order to market your services, pitch stories and get clients to hire you. And then make your case for rates and other conditions.

It is hard work and many will think you don’t work hard.


You will never be just a freelancer

Freelancing means being your own CEO, your own manager, your own admin person, your own recptionist, your own marketing team, your own accountant.

If you work in-house, you only have to do the one role you were hired for. As a freelancer, you have to make big decisions about how you run the business – do you hire someone or not to help you? Do you spend money on this or that?

You have to respond to the emails and calls, you have to be the person trying to sell your services to potential clients. You have to be the person running social media and writing blog posts like this one which has taken about two hours so far to do.

And then you have to grapple with taxes and the law and your accounts and have long discussions with people as to whether you can accept super from a client or if you have to contribute it yourself and if so, how much because you need to predict what your income will be for the year and set up a direct transfer for 9.5% of it or 15% if you want to beat inflation.

You are insulated from all of that as an in-house employee. Sure, you might like some of these tasks but invariably there is a lot of stress that comes with it all as you struggle to figure out how much time you should devote to each thing.


So why do I freelance?

Because the Australian media and publishing industries are still very racist and unwelcoming and there are increasingly less entry level opportunities for people to enter and learn and gain experience. Even once you do get a job in it, it’s very easy to get stuck and not get to do much or go anywhere or be bullied for being different in any way bcause there is still racism and sexism and homophobia and ableism and it’s in the systems by which organisations are run that prevent proper access and equity even if the people are great.

All this to say that when I apply for roles my last name gets my CV stuck somewhere in a pile in HR mentally marked “OMG, union person/POC/angry brown female who will not fit into our don’t stand up for yourself company culture” all of which is illegal and discrimination but hard to police and enforce.

On occasion I get asked to come in for an interview but that is usually when people aren’t serious about hiring you and want to tick a box saying that they did the right thing and interviewed a diverse person. It becomes more about self soothing and optics than about real change. And you are able to figure this out when it happens because the community is small and you find out pretty soon who got hired for what role and you know who is capable of what and if you have more experience than them or not.

So I freelance out of necessity. Because I want to work in these fields and I want to do good work. As a freelancer I don’t have the same resources to do work at the same rate as someone in-house would but that does not mean I am not capable of it which is something HR people and people on hiring panels have yet to realise about freelancers.

I am also lucky though because I like parts of it enough to keep myself freelancing and I can see some of the advantages I have over working in-house. The money I make is mine to put towards any cause I want to. I don’t need to convince someone if I need time off.

But I don’t have stability in other ways and there will be many people who think I am lazy and not a hard worker. People see the surface not what lies underneath.


So should you freelance?

I once talked about the realities of freelancing to a crowd of undergraduates. By the end only one person was still keen.

I said to them that that was fine because I would much rather they knew how hard it would be and if they were able to make a choice to not pursue it if it wasn’t for them, that they could do it before they tried to jump into it.

The skills you learn when freelancing are invaluable. They teach you how to navigate the world outside of the little bubble you grew up in and thought you would inhabit forever. And because change is inevitable and it comes for us all at some point, its good to have those skills to be able to survive said change.

But I would also be happy if you were able to weigh the risk accurately before jumping in. Before deciding whether this was right for you. So I would much rather you knew what you were in for.

There is a community willing to help you – we are colleagues not competition. But don’t jump in eyes wide shut – many do and expect other freelancers to funnel work to them and it doesn’t work that way. The work we do and the ways we find that work are myriad and strange and often dependent on what people know you for.


Help me decide!

You have a few options here.

I offer one on one mentoring so you can book me for an hour to discuss things or for ongoing mentoring to help you get set up and started. I charge $50 per hour.

I also have a mailing list and from time to time I run freelancing webinars either via an organisation or just by myself for a fee. I usually let people on the mailing list know first. So if you need some time to think about it, then that’s the option for you especially if you are also interested in the other things I do.

There is also Patreon where I post content on freelancing though I am still working out the kinks.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

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