New York City Council bill would fine, jail employers who stiff freelancers
The legislation introduced Monday is hailed as the first of its kind nationwide to protect independent contractors.
Art director and illustrator Lucy Reading-Ikkanda said it took six months to get paid the $17,500 one of her contract employers owed her for work she already did.
"If I had not invested those many hours chasing down payment, who knows how long I would have waited for that check," she said.
Reading-Ikkanda is one of an estimated 1.3 million freelance workers across the five boroughs who may be afforded equal protections to secure money owed to them under a new law introduced by the City Council on Monday.
Hailed as the first of its kind in the country, the bill would require that any company seeking to hire a contract worker follow through with a contract that describes the job, the pay, when it's due and how it will be submitted.
Employers that fail to keep their contract will be reported to the city's Department of Consumer Affairs, which could penalize violators with up to $5,000 in fines. Criminal charges could even include up to three months in jail.
"Companies know that there are immediate, serious and costly repercussions for failing to pay the electric company on time," Reading-Ikkanda said. "There are no such repercussions for failing to pay their contractors on time."
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In order to be eligible under the proposed law, a freelancer worker must be hired or retained as an independent contractor to provide services valued at at least $200. That doesn't include certain sales representatives, or attorneys.
The law introduced Monday would also exclude any level of government from having to comply with the law — including the city or any other local government and counties.
The Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which besides management of public properties and citywide equipment also oversees recruitment, oversees more than 150 contracts for a range of services.
Asked about why the city was protected under the current language in the bill, one of the bill's chief sponsors Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander told reporters he would investigate.
"I have to look into that," he said. "We have to make sure the city isn't stiffing its freelancers."
Lander said that his office had not yet heard of any pushback by business community leaders or companies against the bill, though the conversation will start in earnest now that the bill has been introduced.
"Employers realize that this is an important group to keep in New York," said Sara Horowitz, director of the Freelancers Union, the Brooklyn-based group that helped launch a sustained campaign to bring the bill about.
"A good and well-run company doesn't have to stiff workers to turn a profit," she added.
The Freelancers Union estimated that workers working under contract lose some $6,390 in unpaid work every year, which Brooklyn Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo said is a hard reality for New Yorkers working in the so-called "gig economy."
"Our freelancers are what make New York City cool. They are the creative and economic workforce that makes New York where everybody wants to be here," Cumbo said. "We have to make sure they can afford to pay their rent, that they have healthcare and ultimately that they can raise a family."