Making Freelancing in New York a Little Less Stressful

After Sarah Karges lost her full-time job last year at a coffee shop in New York, she started looking for steady work. She enjoyed doing makeup on herself, but that was a hobby she did not think could be a full-time career. But others did.

“My mentors were reaching out, telling me, ‘You’re really talented,’” said Mrs. Karges, 30, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn. That encouragement helped her start freelancing full time as a makeup artist.

She joined a segment of a growing work force. In 2018, 56.7 million Americans were freelancers, according to a study commissioned by Upwork, a global freelancing marketplace, and the Freelancers Union, which represents freelancers nationwide. (In 2014, the study said, that number was 53 million.) The union estimates that up to four million are in the New York City metropolitan area.

Mrs. Karges started freelancing in New York in February, working with models at small fashion shoots. This month, she assisted the makeup artist for Björk ’s New York shows on her Cornucopia concert tour.

The transition to freelancing can be ideal for workers who like diverse clients and flexible schedules, but many of them worry about stable income.

“You never know when you’re going to get work,” Mrs. Karges said. “Some weeks, it’s crickets and nothing will come back. Six weeks later, that one huge makeup artist you never thought would get back to you, gets back to you.”

New York City has taken two big steps in recent years to address such concerns. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act took effect in the five boroughs on May 15, 2017. It established rights including written contracts, full payment and protection from retaliation, along with penalties for violators. The Freelancers Union was involved in shaping the measure.

“Freelance workers will have more confidence that they will be paid in a timely manner for their work, and if they are not paid, they will have a path to pursue full reimbursement for their labor,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in 2016 when he signed the act into law.

In 2018, the city partnered with the Freelancers Union to establish the Freelancers Hub. When announcing its creation, the city said at least 400,000 full-time freelancers were living and working in the five boroughs. The hub, in the Made in NY Media Center in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, is financed and supported by the union and the mayor’s office. It is an open workspace full of free tools including computers, printers and film equipment to serve a variety of workers.

“We have nail techs, hair stylists, photographers, documentarians, journalists,” said Stephanie Alvarado, the programs director at the Freelancers Hub. “I think it’s really important we complement and center diversity and inclusion.”

Ms. Alvarado, a Bronx native with experience in community organizing for queer and immigrant rights in New York, is responsible for serving the needs of freelancers, including helping them negotiate with clients or hosting networking sessions. She is a freelancer herself, working as a photo archivist and performing original poetry.

“To have a space that’s free and resourced, that’s like music to a creator’s ears,” Ms. Alvarado said. “I definitely created this space as their home away from home.”

The hub teams up with organizations like Broad Views on Broadway and the Black TV and Film Collective. These groups help critique freelancers’ plays, TV pilots and short films. Ms. Alvarado and the hub also arranged to translate the Freelance Isn’t Free Act into Spanish and the hub has hosted Spanish-language sessions for freelancers.

The Freelancers Hub’s social media coordinator, Chasity Cooper, helps members build a broader audience and business network.

“When our members come in, I’m co-working with them and having conversations with them about the things they need,” Ms. Cooper said. “I’m just doing the best I can to listen.”

Social media is a major networking tool for Al-Fuquan Green, a freelance stylist, who uses Instagram to promote his work.

“I make sure my Instagram is top notch, showcasing the different talents that I have,” said Mr. Green, 26, who counts Rihanna among his followers. “It’s pretty much the representation of my life, so I make sure it’s extremely authentic.”

At a recent May event, the Freelancers Hub focused on contract basics for artists and creators. Eryc Perez de Tagle, 36, a photographer, was among the 25 freelancers who attended. He began working as a freelance wedding photographer in 2017 after a 13-year career as a fashion designer.

“You can come here and absorb,” said Mr. Perez de Tagle. “I haven’t experienced any other place that expands on these things without cost being involved, so I think that it’s a safe haven.”

But New York City’s freelancing future remains unclear. Health care is a concern, contracts can be confusing, and some who find work outside the city are not covered by the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. Ms. Alvarado wants to close those gaps.

“It’s like now, what’s next?” she said. “Freelance Isn’t Free is a great law. It’s a great first step that was made, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”


Correction: June 1, 2019

An earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances under which Sarah Karges became a full-time freelance makeup artist. Mrs. Karges, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., lost her full-time job at a coffee shop in New York before turning a hobby of doing makeup on herself into a career. She did not lose a job at a coffee shop in Chattanooga and move to New York to start freelancing, and she did not do other people’s makeup as a hobby.