By Ellen Jean Hirst
Sean Williams used to work at Ford. But when the company offered the 46-year-old Chicagoan a buyout, he seized the opportunity to go back to school and pursue his dream of becoming a cinematographer.
Williams graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in cinema production from DePaul University but has struggled to get his new career started. He landed with Uber last year and now makes his way from his South Side home to downtown each afternoon, chauffeuring urbanites around until the early morning.
After more than two years without health insurance, Williams signed up for Obamacare when he learned he could afford it at $230 a month with a government subsidy.
“It’s kind of expensive to me, but I don’t mind,” Williams said. “It beats going to the emergency room … and waiting for someone to talk to you.”
Whether by choice or necessity, the freelancing industry has been growing. About 1 in 3, or about 53 million people nationally, consider themselves freelancers in some capacity, according to a recent national survey commissioned by the Freelancers Union, a New York-based freelancers advocacy group. The catch: no benefits.
That’s where Obamacare steps in to a self-directed worklife. Under the law, individuals who make less than $46,680 or families of four making up to $95,400 qualify for a government subsidy if they also don’t have access to health insurance through an employer.
“Obamacare is part of this new rising infrastructure that’s coming up around this new workforce,” said Dan Lavoie, director of strategy for the Freelancers Union. “It’s co-working spaces, job-sharing sites. There’s this whole new infrastructure that’s coming up to meet this new workforce and so little of it even existed five years ago. … There’s kind of a path now (into freelancing) and Obamacare is part of that path for people.”
Stride Health chief executive Noah Lang said he thinks the availability of affordable health insurance for more freelancers will give the already growing freelance economy an extra bump. Stride is an online insurance exchange for freelancers, among others.
“I think it’s where our economy is headed, people managing their work lives more,” Lang said. “Having access to coverage outside traditional means is a huge enabler for that.”
Angela Rudolph had longed to go into independent consulting for years before finally taking the plunge a few years ago. She said the biggest thing holding her back was the idea of losing her employer-sponsored benefits.
The 43-year-old from Chicago had spent her career in government and nonprofit sectors and signed up for health insurance through Costco when she started her own business. Now, she said, she pays about $100 less a month through Obamacare.
“It was one of the scariest things that for a long time that kept me from putting my foot out there,” Rudolph said. “It definitely takes that worry off the table.”
Sara Sitzer, a 32-year-old from Elgin, said lacking traditional health insurance has been a burden since 2007, when she graduated with a master’s degree in music and shortly after started working as a cellist with the New World Symphony in Florida. She and her husband both work as freelance cellists.
“I had catastrophic insurance,” Sitzer said. “It would have only covered a major, major accident.”
Sitzer and her husband signed up for a traditional 2014 health insurance plan on Healthcare.gov, she said, and for the first time in eight years, she said, she visited a doctor.
She said having coverage makes her feel like she can more easily afford to start a family, too.
“If we’d decided to have kids, we would’ve been paying for everything out of pocket in the old model,” Sitzer said. “Now that there’s so much that’s covered, it can be more of a possibility.”
Freelancers making too much money to qualify for subsidies pay much more for coverage.
“Folks who aren’t subsidy eligible still face challenges,” Freelancer Union’s Lavoie said.
Not everyone is convinced Obamacare increases the number of freelancers.
Bill Keenan, co-executive of the Editorial Freelancers Association, a 2,200-member New York-based group, said the public health care exchanges and subsidies are “definitely a benefit to freelancers,” many of whom were laid off from full-time jobs in the financially struggling industry, but “I’m not sure that that alone is driving any increase in the number of freelancers who are out there. I think that’s more of an economic thing, more jobs are being outsourced.”
Jamie Viggiano, head of marketing for TaskRabbit, a company that allows users to outsource small errands or duties to “taskers,” said company surveys show health care is not a big concern for most workers.
“It does give additional infrastructure and additional comfort for people who are choosing somewhat of an unconventional lifestyle,” Viggiano said of Obamacare. “But none of our taskers have said ‘I’m concerned about health care.’ I think the primary motivation for choosing this lifestyle is the flexibility that it affords. … I think it will marginally impact the growth of the freelancing movement.”