Around the world, government aid is finally catching up to the gig economy

Around the world, government aid is finally catching up to the gig economy

Diana Petra Kicherer had to stop teaching her usual 10 weekly classes in Geneva when yoga studios were closed during a nationwide shutdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

With no income coming in, she was relieved when the Swiss government offered assistance for self-employed workers like herself, who now make up roughly 10% of the labor force in the country. She filled out an online application in 10 minutes and the money arrived three weeks later.

“As independent people, we don’t have insurance,” Kicherer said. “I never thought I would be on state help.” The support is “absolutely amazing,” she said.

With governments bracing for economic contractions and joblessness not seen since the Great Depression, more of them are doling out part of their $8 trillion-plus stimulus to prop up the gig economy — supporting part-time and freelance workers who generally lack a safety net.

Countries like the U.K., U.S., France, Singapore and Australia are going well beyond the fiscal aid delivered during the 2008-09 financial crisis to target a part of the labor market that now makes up one-third of the global workforce, according to estimates from the International Labour Organization. The Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Japan have also allocated support for self-employed people.

It’s in part an acknowledgment of the change the labor market has undergone in the past decade as gig jobs surged with the emergence of digital platforms like Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. For governments, the programs are an additional cost pressure on stretched budgets, but ignoring this key part of the workforce would have dire consequences for peoples’ livelihoods and the wider economy.

Social Protection

“Considering the number of self-employed people in total employment, their economic contribution and their exposure—especially large numbers in informal sector—if they do not receive targeted support, the economic and social outcomes would certainly be more devastating,” said Dragan Radic, the head of the small and medium-sized enterprises unit at the Geneva-based ILO.

In low and middle-income economies, where informal markets tend to be bigger, self-employed people make up a sizable chunk of the labor force, according to the ILO.

But even in parts of the developed world, self employment has grown faster than overall employment, with countries already facing calls before the virus to update their social protection models. In France and the U.K., the share of the workforce who work for themselves, are members of producers’ co-operatives, or are unpaid family workers rose from 2007 to 2018, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Cash Payments

Governments worldwide are now funding the self-employed in ways they never have before. In a 2009 tally of OECD member states’ fiscal stimulus, only Iceland was mentioned as providing such benefits.

France recently set up a “solidarity fund” with contributions from the private sector to help self-employed and small business owners. The U.K. dedicated 9 billion pounds ($11 billion) to help self-employed workers in its fourth emergency package, while crisis-plagued Greece, which didn’t have a program a decade ago, unveiled financial assistance in response to Covid-19.

Australia is offering A$1,500 ($969) a fortnight for as much as six months for self-employed whose revenue is likely to drop by 30% or more. In Singapore, the government estimates that 100,000 self-employed persons will receive cash payments of S$3,000 ($2,114) each in May, July and October. And in Japan, where the self-employed make up about 8% of the working population, freelancers can claim as much as $9,300 from the government if they can show a minimum 50% loss of income in at least one month.

For all the billions of dollars thrown at this sector of the labor market, the rollouts have not been without their hiccups. Among the snags:

  • The U.S., with its patchwork of 50 state policies around distributing government aid, is dealing with mass delays and confusion, on top of charges that self-employed were crowded out of funding claimed by larger businesses
  • There’s a national, and international, argument about who qualifies as self-employed, with France ruling earlier this year that Uber drivers did not
  • In the U.K., a program to pay the self-employed the same proportion of their average annual earnings from the past three years is taking some time to get set up, with payments promised by early June
  • In Switzerland, some workers like taxi drivers were belatedly added to the program since they were initially seen as not legally forced to stop working—which hindered their eligibility

In Singapore, Paul Lew is running an online business selling wine and is setting up another website to sell medical products. He’s received S$600 as a cash handout that the government has paid all Singaporeans, and is considering whether and how he should apply for additional support.

He’s not worried about his own finances for now—he says he always keeps a “tight” control on what he spends—but believes the extra support is vital for the self-employed and small businesses in Singapore.

“Singapore depends a lot on this business,” he said. “A lot of them struggle— they struggle during normal times. And the package at least will help them over a couple of months.”

–With assistance from Lucy Meakin, Jason Scott, Yoolim Lee, Yuko Takeo, Jeannette Neumann and Sotiris Nikas

The Coronavirus Economy: Working as a therapist in an anxious time

The Coronavirus Economy: Working as a therapist in an anxious time

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This is a difficult time for practicing mental health. Therapists know it.

LaToya Gaines, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, has a private practice and also works as a staff psychologist at the campus counseling center at Rutgers University in Newark. “In both places, I have seen an increase in referrals,” she says.

Gaines has had to transition to virtual therapy under stay-at-home orders. Some of her clients who didn’t find the new model ideal chose to suspend treatment for the time being. But that has given her openings to accept new referrals, and she has been getting inquiries: “Some in need of services to cope with situations related to the pandemic, and others wanting to commit to therapy for some time whom the pandemic has given the ‘boost’ to get started.”

At the university, the counseling center was and remains popular. Gaines says students are calling in for appointments.

Fortune spoke with Gaines for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected her work as a therapist. She also shared some advice for people experiencing coronavirus-induced anxiety at the moment. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

LaToya Gaines, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, has a private practice and also works as a staff psychologist at the campus counseling center at Rutgers University.
LaToya Gaines

Fortune: What do you find yourself discussing with your clients lately?

Gaines: In both settings, I am definitely discussing how to exist within this “new normal.” Having such a sudden and drastic change in lifestyle has been jarring for people, and the work has been focused on how to adjust in the best way possible. 

For my students, they have had to transition to distance learning, and most have moved out of the dorms and back with family members, lost jobs, and had senior activities and ceremonies canceled. In terms of academics, there has been a sudden shift in the way material is being delivered and graded, and students are trying to keep up. Some students have challenging relationships with family members, so moving back home is not ideal, especially while trying to keep up with coursework. The disappointment of graduation being canceled has had an impact on some students’ mood, which has also impacted motivation. I work at a school with a high percentage of first-generation college students, so having their families be able to witness them graduate is a huge deal for many.

In private practice, I work with mostly professional women of color. Most are fortunate to work from home. For them, the challenges include adjusting to remote work, and continuing to maintain some sense of normalcy—interacting with friends and family, getting exercise, using coping skills, and dealing with relationship issues (family, live-in partners). This is in addition to whatever goals we were working on prior to the pandemic.

How much do you discuss the coronavirus with them?

In terms of the actual virus, it depends to what degree the person’s life has been impacted by it. For the most part, individuals that I work with have not been directly affected by it. There is some level of anxiety about becoming infected, but that is to be expected. For a small percentage, there are concerns about loved ones who have been diagnosed or who are at a high risk of exposure. For them, the work is focused on processing the range of emotions that come with their experience, providing support and validation, managing expectations, challenging negative thinking patterns, and making sure they have accurate information and are using effective coping skills.

What advice do you have for people experiencing anxiety, stress, trauma, etc., because of the pandemic?

This is an unprecedented time, and there are many unknowns. Some level of anxiety is to be expected. Anxiety is often the result of thinking about the worst-case scenario and trying to control things that we can’t. In such a time, it is important to create as much structure as possible and focus on the things we can control.

1. Make a daily schedule, or stick to your usual routine as much as possible.

2. Maintain communication with family and friends. Think about a variety of things to do together in your virtual chats (play games, have spa days, pray or meditate together, have Netflix parties).

3. Continue to maintain good eating and sleeping habits. Usually when we are stressed, we tend to overlook the basics, but it is so important to pay attention to these things. Our bodies need proper nutrition and adequate sleep—lack of these can also have an impact on our mood.

4. Exercise! Even if it is just going for a walk outside. Endorphins, which are released during physical activity, are the body’s natural mood-booster. There are fitness apps that are offering free content, so definitely take advantage! 

5. Practice mindfulness. Thinking about the future and its uncertainties and unknowns can cause one to feel overwhelmed. Practicing mindfulness will help you focus on the here and now. This can help you feel more grounded.

6. Limit exposure to the news and social media. If you want to stay informed, limit the amount of time you spend each day reading or watching the news, and limit it to accurate sources.

7. Practice gratitude. It is easy to get swept up in the difficulties this has brought, but reminding yourself of two to three things you are thankful for each day can help with coping.

8. If you are having trouble managing, find a licensed therapist to help you. Some insurance companies are waiving cost-sharing for teletherapy, so it’s possible that there will be no cost to you if you see an in-network provider. (Check with your insurance company to verify.)

What is teletherapy like? How does it compare with therapy in person? 

Teletherapy can include a phone or video chat. For video chat, therapists use a HIPAA-compliant platform that is encrypted to ensure your confidentiality. Sessions are typically conducted in the same way an in-person session would be done. Providing therapy through any electronic medium is going to feel different than sitting across from someone face to face.

However, it does not mean that it is any less effective. The most important part of any therapy—in-person or virtual—is the establishment of a strong relationship between client and therapist. The strength of the relationship is the strongest predictor of treatment success no matter the delivery method or type of treatment.

How does your work impact your personal mental-health concerns over the pandemic?

I remind myself daily that I am human too and I am going through the same experience as everyone else. Although I am in a position to support others, I have to acknowledge the parts of myself that also worry about my own health and that of my family and friends. I also have to practice good coping skills and have compassion for myself when I have an off day. What also helps is having the support of other clinicians who understand and are willing to lend an ear to listen.

How do you think the pandemic will change how you practice therapy in the future, if it will?

Personally, this has forced me to learn how to use teletherapy and become comfortable with it rather quickly. Prior to the pandemic, I had no experience providing teletherapy. It is not something that most training programs teach us how to do. It does require a different skill set. 

If I am being honest, I had no interest in learning about it. One of the things I enjoy most about therapy is the privilege to sit with someone face to face and be a partner in navigating whatever difficulty they are faced with. I can say that this experience has changed my mind about incorporating it into the services I provide. While there are still some aspects of treatment that I prefer and need to do in person (initial intakes, psychological assessments), I can definitely see myself using teletherapy in the future for individuals who are a good fit for it. 

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Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.

With work drying up, here’s how freelancers can pivot to make it through the coronavirus pandemic

With work drying up, here’s how freelancers can pivot to make it through the coronavirus pandemic

Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all the columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to

The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: I’m a photographer, and I’ve been a full-time freelancer for years. I make my money from events and weddings, and I sometimes do documentary work, which is my true passion. The coronavirus totally caught me off guard. Like most people, I’m worried about a lot right now: getting sick, people I love getting sick, what this means. I’m also really worried about work right now. With events canceled until ???? and weddings probably canceled through wedding season (my busiest time of the year), I’m suddenly in a terrible position when I thought this year was well planned. 

My freelance work last month was canceled, including a ton of shoots at SXSW, where I usually work like crazy and make connections with people who might hire me later. This month’s work is canceled, and I’m not very hopeful about next month. I’m waiting to see what things might be rescheduled and what I can rely on this fall. A lot of my work on weddings is from referrals, so I’m worried now that less work in the spring is going to mean less work in the fall. 

Even though I’ve worked hard to build my business and line up a mix of client work, everything has suddenly changed. What should I do now when everything is uncertain, including whether I might be able to leave my house this week?

Dear Jamie, 

I feel you. The loss of work in the past few weeks is overwhelming. You’re not alone in how you’ve been affected or what you’re worried about. We don’t know what to expect over the coming months because of the pandemic and its effects on the global economy. The way we live and work looks very different than it did just a few weeks ago. In the future, our experiences during the pandemic will inform new ways of being and of doing business. 

Even before COVID-19, millions of freelancers were already working in systems where they took on outsize risks. As someone who has been freelancing for years, you’re already familiar with the challenges. From financial risk to changing client demands, the pressures on independent workers aren’t new. What this moment gives us is an opportunity to go beyond reacting to the current situation to building a more equitable environment for independent workers. The work you do on your business and in tending to relationships will pay off in the future.

Since things are changing so rapidly, I talked to a few people to get a sense of what their world looks like right now. I reached out to Rafael Espinal, executive director of Freelancers Union, the largest organization that represents independent workers. More than one in three Americans freelanced last year, and Freelancers Union has over 490,000 members from a wide range of industries, from domestic workers to lawyers. Espinal told me that across all industries that freelancers work in, money is the number one concern right now. 

“This pandemic has created the largest financial crisis that freelancers have encountered in modern history,” Espinal said. “Because of the fact that nonessential workplaces have been closed, it has made it nearly impossible for freelancers across the board to be able to find work and earn an income. So you have a workforce that is about 57 million people in size across the country that doesn’t have that source of income.” 

Workers are being hit on both sides—they’re struggling to close contracts and find work, plus they’re having a hard time recouping costs for work they’ve already done.

Freelance photographer Caitlin O’Hara echoed Espinal’s concerns and gave context on the precarious situation many photographers are in. 

“There were a lot of problems already, and this just exacerbates them,” she said. “A lot of people weren’t getting paid on time; a lot of people don’t have insurance; a lot of people were barely making it and are now expected to have a bunch of savings, which is not the reality for a lot of us.” 

My please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is to adjust your hustle. Check in with yourself about what needs attention if you’re not so focused on client work right now. Tend to the nuts-and-bolts side of your freelance business in this unexpected downtime. Catch up on any lingering invoices. Pull things out of your email that need to be documented somewhere else. Do a personal inventory of which clients may have work down the line. Update your contacts. Brainstorm a list of people you’d like to work with and projects you’d like to do. Making space for admin and planning work will lead to new ideas and potential leads.

For you, and for freelancers across the board, now is a good time for planning, personal growth, and strengthening relationships. Check in on how you’re presenting and approaching your work. Level up your website (multiple people I talked to mentioned this and FWIW, this is also a personal goal that I’m hoping to make good on myself over the next month) and refresh your bio. Think about what you need now and how you can show up in your community. Plan personal projects. Take an online class or make time for another way to improve your technical expertise. Consider donating time to small organizations and nonprofits. 

Your instinct is to be productive, and I get that. Be mindful if you need to pause. This unexpected downtime might be a good time to make room for self-care, especially if you were working like crazy before the crisis. It’s okay for you to focus more on being than doing right now. 

Arikia Millikan is an independent consultant who works with the biomedical industry, who’s had more clients since the pandemic hit. Some are coming from referrals, and she’s also been doing outreach to floundering companies that don’t know where to look. With a shift to remote work, clients are confident in her since she established a reputation working online over the past seven years. If you can demonstrate that you have the skills to work remotely, now’s the time to highlight them. Your web presence is likely optimized for events now. Take some time to highlight what you can do online.

Millikan told me that being flexible, building on her expertise, and accommodating new situations and clients based on a more humanistic perspective has worked well for her.

“I’m transparent about where my expertise lies,” Millikan said. “But I think having that flexibility, like the knowledge that it is possible to learn something new and that your expertise might make you better positioned to learn something new faster—that’s part of why you’re an expert.”  

Now—or soon—may be a time for you to ask for support if you need it. For the first time, independent workers qualify for federal unemployment, which will provide $600 per week on top of what’s available from state unemployment. Fortune has already published a helpful overview of how the self-employed can take advantage of the coronavirus stimulus package and unemployment benefits.

“What the federal government did has set precedent for a broader conversation of what a real social safety net for freelancers can look like moving forward, so we don’t have to wait for the next crisis to think about how do we put an economic plan in place to support them,” Espinal said. “This can lead to a broader conversation around unemployment insurance and paid sick days for freelance workers moving forward.” 

There are also an incredible number of inspiring mutual aid efforts happening. Both Espinal and O’Hara encouraged freelancers to look into what people in their industry are organizing and how people are coming together to help. For photographers in particular, O’Hara pointed to Authority Collective, which is pairing freelance visual journalists and artists with donors on a weekly basis. Espinal encourages freelancers from any industry facing sudden hardship to apply to the new Freelancers Relief Fund from Freelancers Union. 

A number of crowdsourced documents show mutual aid efforts around the U.S., some listing relief efforts by state. Some funding is aimed specifically at independent artists, and some opportunities are aimed at creative freelancers. Some emergency funds are giving priority to the first applications and some have short application windows, so the sooner you apply, the better chance that you have to get funding. They are also great places to get inspiration on how people are organizing and which organizations are supporting creative communities. Over the next few months, as you are rebuilding your business, these efforts might give you support and new connections.

This is a moment of opportunity for people who work with freelancers. As a member of Juntos Photo Coop, O’Hara doesn’t only shoot photos, but she’s also reimagining how photographers can be in community with each other and their subjects. Juntos sees this as a moment in which the photo industry can do better at supporting independent workers (the majority of photographers are self-employed) and the communities they serve. I see the work they’re doing as an inspiration to freelancers in other industries as well. 

Juntos released new guidelines for hiring freelance photographers during the pandemic. The call to action seeks to build a more equitable industry. The guidelines offer concrete actions that hiring managers can take now to better guarantee health, safety, and dignity, from paying expenses upfront to building the cost of protective gear into contracts. 

“If editors aren’t in a position to provide PPE, if they’re not willing to have conversations, briefings, and trainings with people, then they’re not in a position to hire freelancers at the moment,” O’Hara said. “We can’t see people using freelancers as disposable or as something like, ‘If they get sick, then we’ll just move on to the next one because we’re not responsible for their health.’”  

You can use their guidelines to have conversations with your clients and other photographers you know to advocate for what you need. We’re all working in new ways because of this pandemic; your safety and well-being should be factored into any new jobs you’re planning. 

“We’re at a moment now where we can all help build the industry that we know is possible where people are feeling valued,” O’Hara said. “We’re going to be working in a new way in the wake of this pandemic, and we feel like it could be an opportunity to push our industry in a direction that’s more equitable.”

For people who are hiring independent workers like you, now is the time to advocate for freelancers. Pay them on time. Be transparent about planned work that may be canceled due to the pandemic or how budgets might be impacted. Keep an open channel of communication. Have empathy for workers who may need to pass on gigs because they are sick or if they feel the job may be risky. Keep them in the rotation for future work. Be an advocate for freelancers’ health and safety with other people you work with, including people who may not be familiar with their scope of work and how they may be vulnerable. 

Millikan is hopeful about the role that freelancers can play right now, and offers reasons for you to be hopeful too. 

“A great amount of creativity will be needed to solve these problems because they’re not problems that anyone has had to solve before. So you can’t apply old ways of doing things to this present situation,” Millikan said. “Creative people and freelancing has gone hand in hand for ages. If it’s a matter of clinging to the past and going back to the way things were, I don’t think that’s possible.”

Sending you good vibes, 

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

—3 ways to manage conflict when you work remotely
—How to job hunt during the coronavirus pandemic
—Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
—4 things to say if recruiters call you during the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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