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Freelance Economy Expands During The Coronavirus Pandemic


There's a saying going around these days - the future of work is now. The pandemic has turned millions of us into virtual workers. And there's another trend that's been less obvious - permanent full-time jobs going freelance. That is severing ties between companies and employees, as NPR's Uri Berliner reports.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Diana Gill was having her early morning coffee at her New York apartment when the messages started coming in from the boss's office. Can you get on a call this morning?

DIANA GILL: With the president. And then, of course, I knew what that meant.

BERLINER: She was being laid off from her job as executive editor at Tor Books. Gill was given a month's notice, and she had plenty of projects to keep her occupied. So the new reality didn't register at first. But then...

GILL: It was May, and I was like, well, there's COVID, so there's certainly not jobs right this minute.

BERLINER: That's when it sank in. She was a freelancer. Her 24-year career as an editor at New York's top publishers was over. Now, editing book-length manuscripts is a specialized skill, so Gill's been pretty busy so far. But she was thrown into the much less secure world of freelancing, where the money and gigs are unpredictable.

GILL: Freelancing is feast or famine, so kind of comes in waves. And I know at some point, there'll be less of it. So I'm looking at that and sort of what to do and how to sort of make it work as a business.

BERLINER: Making it work as a business, becoming a free agent - that's the challenge, predicament - however you want to phrase it - facing many Americans.

JULIA POLLAK: The percentage increases are alarmingly big.

BERLINER: That's Julia Pollak, labor economist with the job site ZipRecruiter. ZipRecruiter tracks the proportion of job postings that are temporary rather than permanent, and it's gone up dramatically during the pandemic.

POLLAK: The share of temporary job postings in communications, for example, was only 12% prior to COVID. It jumped up to 48% in April and May. And though it's come down a bit, it's still very, very high.

BERLINER: A similar story in fields like HR and advertising.

POLLAK: In marketing, the jump was from about 8% historically to 28% post-COVID.

BERLINER: Part of this shift is predictable. When the economy is shaky and the outlook uncertain, employers are reluctant to hire permanent workers. And now tools like Zoom are creating more flexibility in the workplace. White-collar jobs can be done anytime, anyplace, by any capable person with a phone and a laptop. Work is untethered from the office, so workers don't build personal connections with their bosses.

STEPHANIE CAUDLE: I think now, you know, lots of companies are starting to think, like, hey, maybe we don't really need these full-time employees.

BERLINER: Stephanie Caudle is the founder of Black Girl Group, a freelance staffing agency.

CAUDLE: I think now, you know, these companies are starting to see, like, hey, having these folks at home is saving me money. Hey, I don't see those people, so do I really need to be giving them benefits?

BERLINER: As the recession dragged on, the ax has fallen on a wide range of workers. And some workplace experts say a lot more white-collar jobs will be done by contractors, probably forever. But starting a freelance career after getting laid off isn't something people do by choice, says Caudle.

CAUDLE: You almost begin to freelance out of necessity. You don't have time to, you know, cry or be down or depressed because you lost your job. You still have bills to pay, and those bills don't care that you lost your job.

BERLINER: The freelance economy was enormous before the pandemic and has grown even larger during it. Two million freelancers have been added in just the past year. That's according to the freelancing platform Upwork. Upwork's study claims a majority of freelancers who've started since the pandemic say no amount of money would convince them to take a traditional job. A very different picture emerges on the job site ZipRecruiter. Here's the company's labor economist Julia Pollak.

POLLAK: The vast majority - 90% of active ZipRecruiter job seekers - are looking for a permanent full-time position.

BERLINER: A job with benefits like health care, a job with a sense of purpose and mission where you make real connections with your co-workers. Pollak says that's what most workers want.

Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.
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