Highlands workers share challenges of freelancing
In a series last month, The Current looked at Highlands residents who are “living on the edge,” with little savings, as well as efforts to bring higher-paying jobs to the area to support the rising cost of living. But there are many workers for whom the edge is a personal and sometimes philosophical choice.
Disillusionment with the corporate work structure, family obligations and quality of life are all reasons people cite for bypassing a traditional, office-based job, choosing instead to enter the freelance, or “gig” economy — stringing projects together to earn a living that may well require what the United Way in a study called a “survival budget.”
Whatever the reason and whatever you call it, the gig economy is growing rapidly, and will continue to do so over the next decade, according to projections.
A 2018 Gallup Poll found that 36 percent of U.S. workers (57 million people) do freelance work. It calculated that a quarter of full-time workers and half of part-timers rely on “alternative-work arrangements” as their primary jobs, meaning they work remotely or are independent contractors, on-call or temps.
The Gallup report also distinguishes between independent and “contingent” workers, with the former better suited for the flexibility and freedom often associated with the gig economy. Across all categories, Gallup found that gig workers scored higher than people in traditional jobs when polled for a half-dozen metrics, including creativity, autonomy and being paid fairly.
Gig workers aren’t just artists, either. Some researchers include short-term rentals, made through sites such as Airbnb, as yet another “gig.” It’s a lucrative one, too; revenues from home rentals are expected to reach $107 billion by 2025.
How do gig workers in the Highlands make ends meet? In this follow-up to our series, we asked two freelancers to share their stories.
Joseph Ayers grew up on the west coast of Florida, learning carpentry skills from his father, a handyman and commercial fisherman who bought and sold houses on the side to supplement the family’s income.
Ayers was artistically inclined, but before studying digital media at the University of New Orleans, he served five years as an electrician in the U.S. Air Force at Elmendorf Base in Alaska, a stone’s throw from Fort Richardson, where his father had served in the Army 25 years earlier.
After school and the military, Ayers moved to New York City, where he cobbled a living together waiting tables, teaching and apprenticing for established artists. He and his wife, Aya, who is also an artist, moved to Beacon in 2009, and Ayers began teaching at community colleges.
He recalls a grueling schedule of teaching seven courses at three schools, but as he gained experience, his opportunities expanded. He teaches exclusively now at the Parsons School of Design in New York City two to four days each week, and that stability affords him the freedom to pick and choose side gigs while spending time at home with his wife and daughter, who is 8.
“There was always this option to get into a 9-to-5 job so we had some security,” Ayers explains. “I was thinking that way for a while but eventually I decided I didn’t want to do it. I had the skills to make enough money by piecing together side jobs that were more meaningful to me.”
Recent gigs have included managing a two-month-long, 100-artist video and still image exhibition in the Oculus building at the World Trade Center, a contracting project helping Manhattanites renovate private apartments and, in Beacon, a nonpaying gig helping to create the video component of a production by the A-Y/dancers company.
“If I was doing a 9-to-5 job, there’s no way I would have been able to think of [the A-Y gig],” Ayers says. “As an artist, I want to have as much flexibility as possible. Working a 9-to-5 job is like purgatory to me.”
The summer months are leaner for Ayers without his teaching income, but he supplements his earnings with other projects while spending more time at home. This year he’s taken on a project helping a couple build a home on Mount Beacon, while another gig editing a documentary film is on the table for the fall.
For him, the choice to work gigs is clearly a philosophical one. But it’s also harder these days, Ayers says, to put much stock in the “one-company, one-career” model that may have worked for his parents’ generation.
“Now that seems vividly impossible because so many things have been in flux,” he says. “The perception of quality of life is shifting. People prefer freedom over prison, and a lot of those jobs feel like prison.”
You Can’t Be Fired When You’re the Boss
By Jeff Simms
Within the next decade, predicts Scott Tillitt, the founder of Beahive, half of all workers won’t have salaried jobs.
He may be right on the money. By 2027, according to one projection, 58 percent of Americans will be freelancers or have worked as an independent contractor.
Beahive offers what is known as “coworking” space that is typically rented by freelancers, consultants and telecommuters.
Opened in 2009, Beahive was innovative. A study commissioned by GCUC, which organizes coworking conferences, estimated there were fewer than 1,000 coworking spaces worldwide at the time; today, there are more than 21,000, with 3.1 million members. It projected that, with a growth rate of about 24 percent annually, those figures should jump to 30,000 and 5.1 million by 2022.
Like many similar ventures, Beahive was designed from the start as more than a work space. It regularly hosts community meetings, film screenings and, twice last year, a forum to help residents understand Beacon’s changing zoning laws.
“The mission is much larger than just coworking,” says Tillitt, whose background is in marketing and communications. “It’s about community engagement. The events and forums I do are much bigger. They have nothing to do with work but they have everything to do with a vibrant community.”
While traditional economic development may focus on creating the right combination of incentives to bring businesses into a municipality, Tillitt says he’s “much more interested in micro-enterprises and individuals.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s averse to expansion. Membership numbers have doubled at Beahive in the last three years. An Albany location opened in 2012 and, in May, Tillitt launched a Beacon annex at 134 Main St. (The original space, at 291 Main St., remains open, although the building is for sale.) He has also just implemented “big-company” benefits, including healthcare and a 401(k) retirement savings plan through an association of coworking spaces.
Losing his job as a communications manager for a digital firm in late 2000 led Tillitt to a “social and spiritual awakening” that eventually gave birth to Beahive.
“I realized I didn’t want to work for a company again,” he says. “I didn’t want to do corporate work; I wanted to do something more meaningful and community-oriented. Beahive was meant to be a platform and a lab to try to do that.”
Similar spaces have opened all over the region, including Create Community in Nelsonville and facilities in New Paltz, Hudson and Rhinebeck.
“There’s something about coming to a space and working around other people,” says Tillitt. “Coworking isn’t work and it isn’t home. These are places where people convene and feel a sense of belonging.”
291 Main St. | 134 Main St.
845-418-3731 | beahivebzzz.com
Cost: $25 (day pass) to $295 (desk) per month
Create Community (Nelsonville)
11 Peekskill Road | 845-202-3494
Cost: $20 (drop-in, daily), $220 (15 visits)
Prop and set designer Alix Winsby, who lives in Wappingers Falls, became a gig worker less deliberately, when a handful of external circumstances — namely rent, small children and tax incentives — made buying a house outside of New York City an attractive option.
Living first in Brooklyn and then Queens, Winsby and her husband moved to the Highlands in 2017. They looked in Beacon, where properties either sold quickly or needed too much work, before landing nearby.
While her husband, Myles, still commutes to the city daily, Winsby takes Metro-North down a handful of times each month, caring for her children, 6 and 2, and working from her home studio the rest of the time.
“We make it work with day care and school plus an on-call baby sitter when I’m on set, but it’s a juggling act,” she says. “I’m able to work when they’re at school, and then I usually do a second shift after bedtime to get in all the hours.”
For her, the move from the city has been disruptive at times. It’s difficult, for instance, because the studios she normally contracts with have meetings all day and reach out to freelancers in the evenings, “and those are my witching hours, when I’m not available.”
In a fast-paced field, she juggles multiple responsibilities, as well.
“There’s the job of finding the work and maintaining those connections. There’s the job of doing the work, and then there’s the bookkeeping and overhead aspects,” Winsby says. “It’s essentially three jobs, all of which should be full-time. Plus, I’m in an oversaturated field competing with people with no children or overhead expenses.”
Winsby concedes that there’s a delicate balance between personal satisfaction and risky finances.
Her dog was hit by car when she and her family first arrived in the Highlands. Winsby had to miss a job, which impacted her relationship with one of her largest clients. Then, six months later, when her mother died, she had to call out of work with the same client.
“After losing that job, they hired a new set designer and gave half of my work to her,” she recalls. “It cut my income in half and we went massively into debt. It was completely unexpected. We could have lost our house.”
Tied to the Phone
Legislation introduced in June in the state Senate and Assembly would allow “dependent workers” to be considered employees who could unionize and file wage-theft complaints. It defines “dependent worker” as “an individual who provides personal services to a consumer through a private third-party that establishes the amounts earned by the worker or charged to the consumer, or collects payment from the consumer, or pays the individual, or any combination thereof” (e.g., ride-share drivers).
As for benefits: Her husband is insured through his work and the rest of the family is covered out-of-pocket through the New York State of Health marketplace.
“From a job satisfaction perspective,” she says, “this work can be incredible. Sometimes I’m involved all the way from conception to the end product and for that, I feel privileged. What I learned in art school and still use are not necessarily the art or craft, but the visual language. Every day I see the importance of being able to clearly communicate visual ideas, especially as they manifest into a physical reality. In that aspect, it’s a very satisfying career.”
On the other hand, savings and retirement can feel unattainable. “I’ll work a 13- or 16-hour day and make good money, but when you’re not working, you’re not making any money,” she says. “It takes away your social life and any semblance of normal business hours. It is destabilizing.”
Winsby says she thinks often about an exit strategy from gig work. Many in her field, she says, can tolerate the ups and downs when they’re younger, “but most people, especially women, get to a certain point where they open a store or do something else.”
She, too, may one day open a small business, but until then, “this is what’s working for us as a family. It’s a struggle, but it seems like the only option that allows me to have a flexible schedule and do what I love to do.”