You may have heard by now about Sports on Earth, the joint venture between MLB and USA Today that "laid off" a bunch of writers earlier in the week. Although the term "laid off" is a bit dicey: Technically speaking, the site only had a few full-time employees to begin with. Everyone else who wrote for SOE was a freelancer. And when you're a freelancer, you never get the courtesy of being formally fired or laid off. You just never hear back from people ever again.
I freelanced off and on for eight years, up until 2012. If you are my age or younger, you've also probably freelanced at some point. Or you will. The rule of thumb for employers is that a full-time worker will cost you double his or her salary: in overhead, payroll taxes, healthcare, office birthday cake, etc. A freelancer comes with no strings attached. He or she is free to fuck other people, and so is the company. It's not a job. It is WORK. And when the work is done, the freelancer is done. No muss, no fuss.
This is why many places use them, and many more will do so as our economy slogs through the 21st century. The government issues a jobs report every month, but it's hilariously inadequate when it comes to measuring the amount of work that Americans are probably doing. This is a freelance economy now. No one has jobs for you. Most of us are virtual dockworkers, standing outside the port hoping for the foreman to pick us out from the crowd and give us a chance to make money. Most writers are freelancers. Most construction workers are freelancers. Pretty much every actor, director, and crew worker in Hollywood is a freelancer, which is why they all look so desperate. If you're lucky, you freelance for a bit and turn it into a full-time job. (I was paid as a freelancer by Gawker Media starting in 2006 and became a salaried worker in 2012; like many companies, Gawker uses a mix of permanent hires and outside freelancers.) If you never make that jump, you are hustling. Always hustling.
I toggled between advertising work and nerdy blog-nerd work for a while, and in general, advertising pays freelancers a more livable wage. My first freelancing gig in advertising was $300 a day, which sounded like a fortune to me. "If I make $300 a day for 300 days, I'll make $90,000! WOW!" I was fucking jazzed. That was the going minimum for ad guys at the time. For online writers, that minimum can be far lower, like zero.
Of course, I did not work 300 days that year. Freelancers in advertising are paid a decent amount because the implication is that you will not be working every day, and you will need that money to cover the days when you are sitting on your ass. There are many such days. And while it's a nice idea to spend those off days counting all your freelance money, it's hard to do that, because you don't feel like you're enjoying a day off. You feel like you are unemployed. You feel like a hobo. You feel like you need to get more work before the other work dries up. Most of that money you just made will go to paying your bills or to paying for your health care, Obamacare or no Obamacare. In one case, there was an ad firm that let me come to the office and just sit there on my off days, so I could do work if it came in, or search for work on my own. And I took the firm up on it, mostly so I had a place to go. So I felt like I had a job.
There is little in the way of mental rest. Being a freelancer means never turning down work when offered. You don't skip a gig because of vacation or anything like that, because you know that's leaving money on the table. You can see the money burning in your head. And even though a freelancing gig can feel permanent (some joints even give you a desk to work at), that's a trick your mind plays on you. Deep down, you know you're not REALLY a part of the office. You don't get a "happy birthday" email from HR or anything. And lord knows the office has no problem cutting you away at its leisure, never with a formal goodbye or anything like that. You are disappeared, and you are usually the last to know.
Now, having a full-time job isn't much more of a security blanket. Most official employees can still be fired at any time, and frequently are. But there's more security in a full-time job, because you know your boss will have a price to pay for cutting you loose, in severance pay and in time spent digging through resumes to find someone to replace you who isn't a complete idiot. That's not much of a price, but it's enough to make getting rid of people that much more of a pain in the ass. There is also the pain of firing someone, which is a task most people find awkward at best and terrifying at worst. With a freelancer, there are few such qualms.
When you freelance, you are just there and then not there, and you can sense the difference. Every time you come back, you think that maybe this time it's for good, like renewing a broken relationship. And then there are budget cuts, and you're sent back out into the ether. And on and on it goes. You pick up as much work from as many places as you can so that you'll still have a place to do work when another place dries up.
This is how it goes. Even if they changed the laws to give freelancers some kind of safety net (as they've tried to do with Obamacare), the economy will just find a new way to hire freelancers among those not-so-freelance-anymore freelancers. This is the little roller coaster you stay on for years and years until someone rescues you, because a full-time job offer is almost an act of charity in modern America. Or you never get rescued at all. You just hustle and hustle and hustle and hustle, until you can't hustle anymore.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at email@example.com. You can also order Drew's book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.
Image by Jim Cooke.
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