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So What Do You Do, Sara Horowitz, Founder and Executive Director of the Freelancer's Union?

How the former lawyer helped freelancers "get paid, not played"

By Janelle Harris - December 12, 2012
There are 42 million people in America right now who fall under the category of "independent worker." Sara Horowitz doesn't know all of them personally -- she's popular and all, but not quite that popular -- but she does understand and appreciate the issues specific to the self-employed.

In 1995, she founded Working Today, a nonprofit organization that leveraged freelance mojo to influence industry and politics. Eight years later, she reshaped that mass movement into the Freelancer's Union, empowering folks in that growing sector, which comprises almost a third of employed America and countless media professionals, with membership resources and affordable health insurance.

An attorney by trade and an activist by design, Horowitz didn't set out to champion the cause of cubicle counter-culturalists, but she is. "Freelancers, to me, are the important workforce of this next era. Our economy has changed so much that we have to have new ways and new structures," she told us. "We must all evolve, and freelancers are in the midst of all this great change."

Here, the author of the newly released The Freelancer's Bible shares what she's learned about organizing the masses and what the future has in store for the independently employed.

Name: Sara Horowitz
Position: Founder and executive director of the Freelancer's Union and CEO of the Freelancers Insurance Company
Resume: In 1995, the one-time labor lawyer and union organizer founded Working Today, a nonprofit designed to unify freelancers. Created Freelancer's Union in 2003 to promote the needs of the independent workforce through advocacy, education and services. Launched Freelancers Insurance Company in 2008 to provide independent workers with quality health insurance. FIC now insures close to 25,000 New Yorkers with revenues approaching $100 million. Plans for expansion are actively in the works.
Birthday: January 13
Hometown: Brooklyn
Education: Earned her BA from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she was awarded its labor prize. Graduated cum laude from the SUNY Buffalo Law School and completed her MA at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Marital status: Married
Media idol: C.J. Cregg of West Wing
Guilty pleasure: Labor history
Last book read: Future Perfect by Steven Johnson
Twitter handle: @sara_horowitz

The Freelancer's Union was the fire behind the pioneering Payment Protection Act, which helps freelancers in New York "get paid, not played." How does the burden of chasing paychecks affect freelancers specifically and the media industry as a whole?
One of the typical things that freelancers face, obviously, is not getting paid -- not the full amount or the total amount. And there's no place to go but small claims court. We wanted them to be able to go to the Department of Labor, and we came within a hair's breadth of that. Now [the act] is pending in both New York and New Jersey. I think the media industry tends to treat freelancers like invoices, like receivables, so they say 'OK, you'll get paid 30, 60, 90 days out.' This gives them a lot of float, because they're holding on to that money for that time, and, if you want to get paid within two weeks, you get paid $0.96 on the dollar. You lost 4 percent. If you were a traditional employee in New York right now, that would be illegal. This is bad practice and something we're going to be looking at in the next year.

"Freelancers, to me, are the important workforce of this next era."

How did representing the interests and concerns of independent workers become your personal and professional mission?
I was hired as a lawyer and I was made an independent contractor. I wasn't given any benefits. My orientation is always to be a builder, and I don't think it's always helpful to focus on, 'OK, this bad thing happened.' It's like, what are we going to do about it? So when I started to talk to freelancers and independent workers, one issue was health insurance. I just started building. There are structural problems in our society where the laws and the regulations are stuck in the 30s, and we need to start thinking about the future. And the future, it turns out, is really so very different from the past.

We're coming together in, almost in DIY fashion, and building our own institutions, like our own insurance companies that we own. It's not charity; it's ourselves. In New York, the rates are 30 to 40 percent cheaper. We just had a zero percent increase in premiums. We now are opening up this medical practice. We can do so much, because government just doesn't get it. If we wait on them, we'll be just sitting there by the side of the road. We're not doing that. We're going to take care of ourselves and government will come around. They'll figure it out, but they're going to want our votes.

Freelancer's Medical, the first primary care facility for freelancers, opened last month in Brooklyn, and you must be extremely proud to provide this level of specialized service. Do you plan to open others and where do you think they're needed most?
We're doing them in Oregon, as well. I'm not able to say what's next, but the co-ops are going forward, and the exchanges are certainly going to create a great way for people to be getting health insurance, particularly for freelancers who are under 400 percent of poverty. That's going to really matter to our members who are older and lower-waged. And then we're going to be looking at what to do for our members who are above 400 percent of poverty, because that's really our middle-class. That's where we're going to be innovating and looking at how the landscape is changing and planning from there.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Lola Ogunnaike, Freelance Journalist and TV Personality?

How does the re-election of President Obama and his healthcare agenda play into the future of the practice?
There are other things that are good all around, like the end of the preexisting conditions. We're a nonprofit and we own our own insurance company, so there are no private shareholders. I think what we're going to see is that a lot of private equity is going to move out of the insurance business per se, because they won't be able to make as much money. So, I think there's going to be a lot of changes afoot in the healthcare industry.

How do you foresee the freelance workforce growing in the next five years, and how can they meet professional needs in ways that traditional 9-to-5-ers can't?
There was a tipping point that happened like three years ago. On the one hand, you could work for a company full-time with no job security and bad benefits, or you could freelance with no job security and difficult benefits, except for in New York. I think people started saying, 'Well, why don't I just freelance?' I think what you're seeing is companies like IBM, who predicted that half of its workforce is going to be working independently. We're starting to see companies really wanting more of their workforce working remotely. We're going to see new institutions start to create it -- for instance, Kickstarter and Etsy and Freelancer's Insurance Company. There are multimillion dollar companies now seeing that freelancers are customers. So, the whole ecosystem is really starting to heat up.

How are independent workers and freelancers equipped to compete against publishing and design houses, for example?
It's interesting. There are two big elements to answering that. One is these big design houses are so chock full of freelancers. It's not like there are just full-time people in them. Full-time freelancers are nimble, working on teams in every big company and every big design firm. They're everywhere. I think the other thing is that you're going to start seeing freelancers coming together like the United Artists in the early days of figuring out ways where they can group and create new hybrid types of cooperatives to do their long-term work. Some people are great at marketing, some people are great at writing, and we need to start bringing people together so they don't have to know how to do everything and start evening out their income. There are already intense and robust informal networks of freelancers. This is the future. This is what Freelancer's Union is working on.

"We're going to take care of ourselves and government will come around."

What did you like about independent contracting? What are some of the not-so-great things about it?
When you meet freelancers who have really found their groove, there's a sense of almost zen in it, because they've switched around the equation of 'here's my job; I wake up; I do it; I come home; I go to sleep.' And they say, 'what is my life for? What am I doing and what do I love? And how do I fit work around that?' One of the challenges for all freelancers, though, is it can be feast or famine, and they're not eligible for unemployment to help even out when they're in a rough patch. We would like to see people be able to create pre-tax accounts so when they're in the feast stage, they could put money in and draw in famine. In the recession, 12 percent of our members went on food stamps because they weren't eligible for unemployment. That's bad. We also have to start thinking about access to capital to grow business -- not huge amounts, small amounts -- so that we start having new banks and financial institutions that understand the risks, the real risks, of lending to freelancers so that they can mitigate the risks and get money to them.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the dive into working for themselves?
Really pay attention to your network. By network, I mean the people you care about. So when you go to a networking event, don't just take your card out and shove it in somebody's face. Look to find the one or two people you like and can relate to and nurture those relationships. Your network is going to be everything. The second thing is look at your consumption and stop overspending. It's bad for America, but you've also got to keep your expenses down. People become very anxiety-ridden because they try to maintain a standard of living, but when you're starting out, you don't know what your standard of living is going to be. So be frugal.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Lola Ogunnaike, Freelance Journalist and TV Personality?

Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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