Freelancers Union is a non-profit organization in the United States of America. The organization provides advocacy and health insurance to its members through its for-profit Freelancers Insurance Company. The union promotes information through monthly meetings.
|Headquarters||New York City, United States|
The Freelancers Union should not be confused with a trade union, and is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO or any other organization that represents workers and negotiates on behalf of their members (workers).
Membership in Freelancers Union is more than 350,000 nationwide, with more than half in New York State. This includes people who work as freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, and contingent employees, and those who are otherwise self-employed. This segment of workers makes up one-third of the American workforce. Nearly 25,000 people purchase insurance through the organization's Freelancers Insurance Company.
Because they are employed in nontraditional arrangements, independent workers do not have access to employer-based health care insurance. To address this, Working Today, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, launched Freelancers Union in 2001. Sara Horowitz founded Working Today in New York City in 1995, in order to represent the needs and concerns of the growing independent workforce. Before founding Working Today – Freelancers Union, Horowitz was a labor law attorney in private practice and a union organizer with SEIU 1199, the National Health and Human Service Employees Union.
Freelancers Union has created a portable benefits delivery system, linking benefits to individuals rather than to employers, so independent workers can maintain benefits as they move from job to job and project to project.
The organization also tries to increase the visibility of independent workers, bringing issues that concern freelancers to the attention of media and policy makers. From tax relief (independent workers bear a greater tax burden than traditional employees) to unemployment and worker’s compensation, Freelancers Union advocates for legal reform on these issues. Freelancers Union also provides its members with online tools, business management information, networking opportunities, group discount terms with various vendors or partners, and other assistance in working successfully as independents. Membership is free of charge, as is members' access to the union's meetings, tools and basic information. Members pay fees for certain events, seminars and other services, as well as premiums if they elect to buy health insurance through the union.
In 2003, a re-branding of Working Today’s Portable Benefits Network was launched. The new “pilot” program, called The Freelancers Union, offers freelancers membership services like affordable health care, life insurance, and a forum for discussion on what freelancing is like in the current economy. Though freelancers could not officially unionize, the group worked to provide a “collective” platform for advocacy, and it was geared to appeal specifically to its namesake: freelancers. The updated Freelancers Union began to use "slogans to combine squishy ideals of teamwork, justice, and co-operation—'Organize and Mobilize:' 'Working for the Radical Notion of Fairness'—with a Generation Y self-centeredness: 'There’s an I in Union,'" appealing directly to the modern freelance audience.
Freelancers Insurance Company (FIC) was founded in 2008. To create the Freelancers Insurance Company, Ms. Horowitz needed to persuade investors to put up $17 million. The Rockefeller Foundation and others gave $7 million in grants, and additional foundations joined in, agreeing to lend the rest at a 3 percent interest rate.” FIC began offering health insurance to members of Freelancers Union on January 1, 2009. As a fully licensed insurance company in the state of New York, FIC sold a group insurance policy to Freelancers Union, thereby covering eligible members of Freelancers Union living in New York. FIC offered 5 health plan designs, including three copay-based designs and two high deductible plans. All plans were PPOs (including out of network coverage) using a nationwide network provided through BlueCross BlueShield. Freelancers could enroll in an FIC plan by first demonstrating to Freelancers Union that they met certain criteria – continuing the same process that had been in place for years under Freelancers Union's Portable Benefits Network.
A newly formed Political Action Committee made its political debut in September 2009. Canvassing potential candidates via questionnaire in order to find the right people to align and endorse. “We started the PAC because if you want to change you have to be politically involved."
The “Get Paid, Not Played” Campaign was launched in October 2010 and marked the Freelancers Union’s latest effort to publicize the repercussions of late or lack of payment to freelancers. The World’s Longest Invoice campaign followed, a tandem effort to create publicity in order to pass the “Freelancer Payment Protection Act, which [gives] the self-employed many of the same remedies for non-payment that regular employees now have, including the right to file grievances with the state department of labor."
The Freelancers Union-funded medical clinics opened in 2013. The spaces were created to function ”as the first medical home and serve members of the Freelancers Union Insurance Company." With yoga, iPads and no co-pays and deductibles, the 408 Jay Street clinic, housed in a renovated 6,000 square-foot building, offered same-day services, nutrition and cooking classes as well as text messaging communications from doctors.
The Freelancers Union created the National Benefits Program that same year with a 2014 launch, a program providing “a curated selection of health insurance options for freelancers across the country." This new tool, the first of its kind, allowed freelancers to search by zip code for benefits such as “401k plan, dental insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, liability insurance and health insurance that are available to independent workers in their area." Health insurance was scheduled to become available via platform in all 50 states by “the November national enrollment period."
In 2016, Uber announced a new “groundbreaking agreement to bring needed supports to Uber drivers in New York City." A new association, The Independent Driver’s Guild, ”was created to “push for labor protections for the company’s independent contractors.” The Freelancers Union was chosen to “advise Uber on strategies for building a nationwide portable benefits platform for drivers, bringing safety net protections to tens of thousands of hardworking men and women."
Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union's founder, does not believe in a Canadian-style single-payer health care system, she said on WNYC's radio program, The Brian Lehrer Show. She believes that individuals should be able to buy insurance through groups like the Freelancers Union that would give them bargaining power with insurance companies. They should get assistance through vouchers or a refundable tax credit if they cannot afford it, she insists.
Under federal labor laws, the Freelancers Union cannot engage in collective bargaining over wages or working conditions because it is not a certified union. The entertainment unions can today, because they were grandfathered in. Collective bargaining is a "moment in history", as Horowitz told Lehrer. Judging by listener phone calls, Lehrer suggested that the biggest problem freelancers had with the Freelancers Union (at the time, in 2007) was that they could not meet the organization's definition of freelancer, which requires that they work at least 20 hours a week in one of seven industries typically associated with independent workers.
In recognition of her efforts to create a self-sustaining organization of flexible workers, Sara Horowitz was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("genius" grant) in 1999. In 2002, she was named as one of Esquire Magazine’s "Fifty Best & Brightest" and received a community development award from the New York Mayor’s Office.
In 2013, Horowitz became a member of the New York Federal Reserve board. Chosen for the unique constituency the Freelancers Union represents economically, “Horowitz was appointed in 2013 as a Class C director and in 2014 she began to serve as deputy chair. As of 2017 she is a "Class C Director Chair."
Horowitz is also recognized as one of the World Economic Forum’s 100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow, and was selected as one of the 2015 “POLITICO 50", POLITICO magazine’s marquee annual list of thinkers, doers, and visionaries transforming American politics. She is also on the board of Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, Emily K. Rafferty Designated Chair and Kathryn S. Wylde Redesignated Deputy Chair, and the recipient of the Eugene V. Debs Award for her contribution in building the labor movement for gig workers.
National Benefits Platform
Freelancers Union offers health insurance as a non-profit health insurance brokerage. In 2001, it created an infrastructure platform known as the Portable Benefits Network (PBN) which provides health insurance to independent workers at less than half the price of average HMO premiums in the individual market in New York City, as well as offers life and disability insurance, financial services, resources, and discounts. As of June 2006, nearly 12,000 independent workers receive benefits through the PBN and several thousand more advocacy members have registered to support its mission. In 2008, it replaced PBN with the Freelancers Insurance Company (a wholly owned for-profit company) to offer insurance to its members.
With the PBN platform in place, the organization expanded, becoming a full service association for the independent workforce. In August 2006, Freelancers Union launched a web portal with new services available to freelancers that includes job postings, message boards, and member profiles.
In 2014, Horowitz announced a rebranding of the PBN at the Clinton Global Initiative; PBN is now called The National Benefits Platform.
In 2017, the Freelancers Union launched the first standard freelance contract in collaboration with And Co. The contract is built around the Freelance Isn't Free Act, a New York City law passed to protect freelancers.
Some traditional unionists say that Freelancers Union is an association, not a union, and so it will not be able to achieve significant gains for workers. Freelancers Union does not negotiate contracts with employers nor represent freelancers when they have grievances, and freelancers have no employee bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
One of the main benefits that Freelancers Union provided for its members was health insurance, but it does not qualify for Obamacare. It now refers its members to Empire BlueCross BlueShield. The cost of selling individual insurance requires more overhead than group insurance. "Policies that provide the exact same coverage to someone working for a large employer will cost more for an individual," says the Center for American Progress's website for college students. "Even worse, insurers can pick and choose preexisting conditions and then deny coverage for those deemed too costly to cover." A Center for American Progress fellow estimated the average difference in administrative costs alone to be $300 per year between individual and group insurance. The Freelancers Union acknowledges those problems with the open market but asserts that its large-group bargaining power, its captive insurance company's obligation to grant coverage, and its non-profit marketing role all serve as effective remedies.
In January 2008, Freelancers Union was criticized by both its members and the press when its new Freelancers Insurance Company became the entity providing coverage to members. At that time, the Union dropped Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield in favor of a range of new options, mostly more expensive, with Anthem BC/BS remaining only as claims processing agent. Members then faced the complexity inherent in comparing the limits, exclusions, co-payments, co-insurance percentages, and annual and other deductibles of the various new options with those of the old plans. Throughout this process, some members were even inadvertently dropped altogether.
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