Aid bills passed by nations coping with the coronavirus pandemic are diverse, but most have something in common: freelancers are an afterthought.
Germany’s Aid Programs Save the Self-Employed
On March 25th, for the first time since 2013, Germany took on new debt as Chancellor Angela Merkel convinced every political party in the Senate except the far-right populists, Alternative for Germany, to fast-track a massive €750 billion aid package to save the economy. The bill included a relief program for the country’s self-employed and small business workers, including writers, artists, and musicians, an estimated 10 million people in a country of 83 million residents.
Two days later, Berlin’s business development bank (Investitionbank Berlin, or IBB) opened its virtual doors for a one-time grant that came in three sizes — €5,000 for self-employed individuals, €9,000 for businesses of up to five employees, and €15,000 grants for businesses with up to 10 employees. Within five days, the state had already dispersed over a billion euros, according to The New York Times, well over the planned volume of €600 million. In a country infamous for requiring Mount Everest-sized piles of paperwork to do anything, the grants were the easiest bureaucratic process many of us had ever experienced in Germany (where I have lived as an American expat for two years). Even the mammoth virtual queue, which stretched past one hundred thousand people within a day of opening, was relatively painless. Once my turn came, I finished and submitted the form in less than half an hour. Four days later, €5,000 was deposited into my account.
For Grace Dobush, a writer who moved to Berlin from Cincinnati, Ohio three years ago to freelance, it was just as easy. After queueing the same day the grant application opened, she’d made it to the front by Sunday and had the money by Tuesday afternoon. “I was so impressed by the efficiency,” she said in an email. The only hiccup has been that some received double the amount they’d applied for and frantically tried to find a way to give half back.
A remaining concern is how strict the government will be later on how the funds are used, in part because the grant program’s rules have been split into two parts. After exhausting the initial pool of €900 million in state funds, the IBB froze the program until more money could be added from the €50 billion federal aid program spread across Germany’s 16 states — and took the time to add in stricter stipulations. As the money switched from state to federal funds, the latest round of grants came with a caveat: The new grants can be used to cover “business expenses” but cannot replace or cover salaries or rent for anything other than a home office, unlike the first round. Those who missed the first batch of grants at the state level and have now received federal grant money are left wondering if using the funds to keep a roof over their heads will come back to bite them later if their spending is audited.
This concern over audits is shared by writer Courtney Tenz, who lives in Cologne, Germany, the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak that began during Carnival celebrations in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Tenz, who moved to Germany from the US 14 years ago, is a single parent overseeing homeschooling while trying to come up with ideas for stories. “I won't pretend to know anything about this virus or switch beats [for more work], so it's like staring into the abyss,” she said.
The grant program in North Rhine-Westphalia is still generous but, as Germany’s most populous state, the state-level program comes with a few key differences from the one in Berlin. While the amounts provided are higher – €9,000 for the self-employed with up to five employees, €15,000 for applicants with up to 10 employees, and €25,000 for up to 50 employees — proof of a year-on-year comparable drop in income for March is a requirement for aid. Additionally, the grant can only be used to supplement a salary until April 1. According to a news report on April 9 by Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, the Federal Ministry of Economics in North Rhine-Westphalia clarified that "costs of private living such as renting a private apartment or health insurance contributions are not covered by emergency aid."
Even with the stricter requirements for aid and the prospect of an audit once the coronavirus pandemic ends, the safety nets put in place for freelancers across Germany have become a gold standard. As Finance Senator Matthias Kollatz said of the aid at the start of April: “No country offers more money for small businesses. No country is implementing the programs faster." For Tenz, myself, and so many other expat freelancers, it feels like a monumental shift. “In 15 years here, I haven’t been able to apply for any sort of financial assistance,” Tenz explained. “The fact they’re finally including foreigners in this package is frankly incredible and goes totally against both past austerity measures and xenophobic populism, which feels like a turning point.”
In the UK, a Surprise Aid Package Full of Uncertainty
On March 23, the UK unveiled its own relief program that came with a heavy dose of controversy and delay. The problems began as Finance minister Rishi Sunak announced an emergency bailout plan that enabled salaried workers to claim relief funds of 80% of their wages of up to £2,500 a month during the crisis, while giving self-employed workers a Universal Credit (Britain’s one-size-fits-all monthly payment to help with living costs) worth just £94.25 per week. After sharp criticism and claims of discrimination by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, Sunak went back to the drawing board to draft up a new plan for the self-employed.
Three days later, he announced the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), which stipulates that if more than half of a person’s income is from self-employment, they too could claim 80% of their wages for up to £2,500 a month. The new program was a pleasant surprise for some UK freelancers. London-based writer and researcher Jay Owens told me over email that she’d rate the government’s efforts a “solid 8/10 for the support as it stands — and they’re Tories, so that’s fucking astonishing.” Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the UK tax office that collects funding for public services, will reach out directly to those who qualify to make sure they’re aware of the aid. But, as London-based writer Daniel Trilling pointed it, there are still major flaws that need to be addressed.
“First, [the relief amount is] an average based on the last few years of tax returns: if you made a loss during that period, as many people do when they're trying to set up businesses, you'll receive nothing,” he wrote in an email. The relief package also does not help individuals earning more than £50,000 a year and only applies to those who have submitted at least one previous tax return. “If you went freelance at any point during the financial year 2019-20 [and haven’t submitted a tax return for 2019], you won’t be eligible. The government says this is to prevent fraud, but it potentially excludes more than a million people from the scheme.”
Another problem with the aid package: the anticipated payout date won’t be until June. In the meantime, the government advises “self-employed individuals with cash-flow issues” (aka everyone) to apply for a Universal Credit from the unemployment office. Despite reports of long phone queues, official figures show that 950,000 people successfully applied for the Universal Credit between March 16 and March 30. But jobless benefits are not a solution to the bigger crisis facing the UK’s freelance workers. With no clear directive besides “wait in the unemployment line” and no clear date on when to expect grant aid, Trilling wondered: “What they expect people who have lost all their income now and don't have savings to do isn't clear. Get into debt? Rely on food banks?” While people try to survive until June, the promise of aid from the SEISS does little to help in the short-term.
For the Rest of Europe, A Patchwork of Unequal Programs
The emergency grants and expansions of unemployment benefits seen in Germany and the UK have also begun to take shape across the European Union. France created a €1 billion “solidarity fund” on March 17 for small businesses, as well as a postponement of rent and utilities payments, though both come with major caveats. The solidarity fund will give €1,500 in financial compensation per month only if a business had lost 50% of their income compared to March 2019, while the rent postponement must be on “professional premises,” which may exclude many who work from home.
In Italy on March 16, a €25 billion decree was announced that suspended all taxes, social security contributions, and compulsory insurance premiums, but only pledged a paltry €600 for self-employed or seasonal workers to make up for lost income in March. In smaller EU countries, the aid for freelancers is scattered. Like Germany, Belgium has announced and implemented an aid program, the Federal Plan for Social and Economic Protection, for self-employed people, providing €1,500 a month in “income support.” In Ireland, the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment program has pledged €350 a week to employees and self-employed people, but to qualify, Irish self-employed people must not be making any income.
In Spain, Social Security Minister Jose Luis Escriva has unveiled a basic monthly income, but it will only apply to “about a million of the country’s poorest households,” which seems to be defined as “income of less than €246 a month,” according to Escriva. For those not in the poorest income bracket, the rollout of aid has been a mess. For Madrid-based writer Benjamin Kemper, the confusion over what’s available to who turned what he thought was a proactive step into a nightmare.
“Registered freelancers in Spain pay a minimum of €283 to social security per month plus income taxes, which is quite the burden. In early March, as assignment after assignment was cancelled, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make that payment (plus rent, cost of living, etc.), so I unregistered,” he explained over email. But after he unregistered, a freelancer aid package of about €897 a month was announced. Grant recipients must be registered, though whether Kemper would have even qualified is unclear. “My accountant informed me that media-related professions are not necessarily included in this aid package, since the government considers that journalists can continue to work during this time.”
While he and his accountant try to piece through the available aid, Kemper has applied for “renta minima estatal,” an imperfect but last-ditch €500 payment to help Spanish residents and citizens who don’t qualify for any other subsidies pay for rent and other bills. After an hour-long application for “renta minima estatal,” he has yet to find out if he’s been approved. “Even my accountant can't decipher what's what. The lack of answers to basic questions has everyone on edge.”
Canada’s Freelance Aid “Talks a Good Game But Fails to Deliver”
When the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was announced on March 25, it seemed like a great safety net in the struggle to save the country’s workforce: four months of a $2,000 monthly payment that would be delivered within days to eligible Canadians. But like the UK’s aid program, eligibility requirements proved confusing and contradictory for freelancers.
As The Globe and Mail reported on April 6, the country’s artistic community and self-employed workforce had to wait for clarification on the CERB’s requirement that applicants have “no employment or self-employment income” before applying for aid. It was only later in the month that this clause was amended after public outcry, but the bill still falls short. As of now, according to a Canadian Union of Public Employees Q&A, those with “less than $1,000 [CAD] of income in a four-week period” who had at least “$5,000 in self-employment income” in 2019 or a 12-month period “preceding the day they make the application” can qualify for aid.
For Canadian freelancers, the CERB’s ever-shifting requirements and a new cap on monthly income have become emblematic of the problems they face in an employment gray zone. “The choice shouldn't be between working and getting government aid,” said Toronto-based writer Audrey Carleton. “Those who fall in the $1,000- and $2,000-a-month range, in the average Canadian city, are likely barely scraping by and are left completely vulnerable by this aid program.”
“Canada, as always, talks a good game but fails to deliver to those who need it most,” Vancouver’s Barry Rueger said of the CERB. Because writing work is a side gig — commercial dog-walking, still considered an essential service, is his day job — Rueger is left out of most aid programs, including the CERB.
For Toronto travel writer Joel Balsam, the CERB program has been a lifeline. Before the coronavirus crisis, he was set to travel to France to write a Lonely Planet guidebook and moved out of his apartment in preparation for the move. Now that lockdowns made travel impossible and Lonely Planet has paused all commissioned work, he’s holed up with his partner. Balsam received the CERB stimulus through a process that he noted was extremely easy: “Just three clicks and four business days later, I had the money in my bank account.”
Singapore’s Sets a New Standard While South Korea’s Aid Program Stumbles
On April 27, Singapore’s Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) will open applications for a bailout of three quarterly cash payments of $3,000 for the self-employed. Although the program, run by the country’s National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Ministry of Manpower (or... MOM), comes with a few income requirements — no annual income of more than $100,000 for individuals and for couples; an applicant’s spouse’s income can’t exceed $70,000 — the payments are a welcome lifeline for the country’s self-employed workforce, especially as other countries in Asia leave the freelance community grasping for help.
In South Korea, a safety net for the self-employed has been slow to arrive. On April 22, a third round of aid was announced after an initial stimulus in March and a subsequent ₩7.6 trillion (around $62 billion in USD) package in the beginning of April. The new spending, which South Korean President Moon Jae-in called a “Korean-style New Deal,” included subsidies for self-employed and temporary workers, but as in other countries, the phrasing of the bill left many questions left unanswered. According to news briefs, the freelance aid program will cover “about 930,000 self-employed and temporary workers who lost their jobs,” which does nothing to clarify whether freelancers who have lost a majority but not all of their work will qualify. For Seoul-based Study Hall member Ann Babe, the new aid package was “certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn't apply to foreign workers,” a problem that impacts her personally: as an American national who was born in South Korea but isn’t married to a Korean citizen, there are no relief programs available to her.
Still, as Babe sees how the coronavirus crisis is playing out back home in the US, she feels lucky to be covered by a functioning healthcare system. “At least here, government-sponsored healthcare gives me access to testing, treatment, supplies like N95 masks, and the underlying structure that makes contact tracing and containment possible. And even undocumented immigrants have access to this testing and treatment,” she said over email. “But of course, feeling relieved is not the same as getting relief, in the form of financial aid.”
Australian Activists Call for the Country’s Aid Programs to Open to All
In Australia, a number of programs have helped ease the financial burden on freelancers and a major loophole has inspired a wave of activism. In addition to two one-time payments of $750, the government has bolstered its existing unemployment benefits program, JobSeeker, by expanding who can apply and increasing the payout amount — a move that has already prompted calls to keep higher rates after the coronavirus crisis ends. The usual requirements for unemployment aid have been relaxed so that freelancers and self-employed people can get relief while still doing freelance work, one of the most frustrating omissions from other countries’ aid bills. Every week, self-employed workers can get up to $250 depending on how much they’re earning, with an additional Coronavirus Supplement of $275 per week.
A new program, JobKeeper, has also been created for employers. JobKeeper allows employers to give $750 a week to employees, including self-employed people whose income has dropped at least 30% in March and April compared to the previous year.
While it’s helpful to have that financial aid available, for Australian critic and art reporter Jinghua Qian, the programs don’t go far enough. “You have to have a lot of red tape savvy to even navigate the system, because it’s really not designed for the kind of work we do or the way our industry is structured.” One problem with the Australian system: to qualify for any of it, you have to be an Australian citizen or permanent resident.
This omission spurred Qian into action. They joined a group of activists in launching the Undocumented Migrants Solidarity project and Undocumented Migrants COVID-19 fund earlier this month, which has already raised nearly $50,000 to support the undocumented migrants who don’t qualify for government aid since launching on April 7. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), an Australian trade union, has also circulated campaigns for workers’ rights and campaigned against proposed shutdowns of local papers.
The idea that all freelance or self-employed workers in a country should receive financial support during this pandemic shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. Aid for freelancers often seems like an afterthought, and a common thread in aid programs worldwide has been the exclusion of foreign workers. It was through sheer luck that I chose to settle in a country like Germany where foreign-born freelancers have been included in the aid programs. Being here has shown me what the norm should be.
There’s no doubt that we are facing one of the darkest periods in the history of media; it’s difficult to celebrate self-employed work being legitimized in national legislation when every day brings word of new layoffs or a new publication shuttering. But as we all grapple with questions about the future of our industry, there are also positive trends in response to the crisis. At a time when every industry is trying to find a foothold, the pandemic has united writers, artists, and other self-employed people under a renewed sense of solidarity. Projects like the Undocumented Migrants Solidarity campaign, writing unions, and communities like the one we have here at Study Hall have become indispensable. And while aid legislation is imperfect, it’s worth celebrating the aid programs that do help us. The patchwork of freelance bailouts around the world aren’t without their faults, but the fact that they even exist underscores the importance of our work.