Thursday, June 24, 2010

Roofers and writers

Why won’t the major textbook publishers hire freelancers who live in Massachusetts? WGBH produced an excellent 10-minute segment explaining the problem. A 2004 rewrite of the independent contractor law in Massachusetts said that a company can only classify a worker as an independent contractor if “the service is performed outside the usual course of the business of the employer.” A restaurant can pay an interior designer or a web designer as an independent contractor, but a sous-chef is an employee. This law was written to target the construction industry in particular, in the hopes that more of the folks with serious work-related injuries would actually have worker’s comp coverage.

Over the past few years, textbook publishers have figured out that the law might apply to them as well. (There’s no reason why it wouldn’t, the way that it’s written.) So they’ve largely stopped hiring freelancers in Massachusetts when they need a writer, editor, proofreader, illustrator, photographer, or indexer. The publishers haven’t stopped downsizing and outsourcing—they’ve just stopped using in-state talent or they’ve inserted an employment services firm as an expensive buffer between themselves and their freelancers.

This is very frustrating for people who have honestly been freelancers in the creative industries for a long time. But the ridiculous part is that the Attorney General, Martha Coakley, has been ignoring her responsibility to issue clear guidance to employers about the law. Enforcement is extremely limited in practice but not in theory, so some companies are avoiding hiring any freelancers in Massachusetts while others are ignoring the law entirely. The law is in a section on fair competition, but there’s no level playing field when companies are taking such divergent approaches to complying with the law. We should have a clear discussion about when we want to allow companies to hire freelancers as independent contractors, and the decisions we make should apply to all companies. The WGBH segment is a good first step.

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