Platforms and Governments Take Steps Toward Sexual Harassment Protections for Freelancers

Platforms and Governments Take Steps Toward Sexual Harassment Protections for Freelancers

The freelance hiring and management platforms Fiverr and AND CO have teamed up to create a new standardized work contract for freelancers that they are calling the first of its kind to include built-in protections against sexual harassment, Ephrat Livni reported at Quartz on Wednesday:

The new contract explicitly states that harassment by clients or staff isn’t tolerated, which may seem obvious but isn’t a fundamental aspect of most freelance arrangements. The agreement also gives freelancers the right to terminate an arrangement if offending behavior continues after the client has been informed of it. A contractor who quits on these grounds must then be paid in full for the project or the month—depending on the terms of their arrangement with the client—and must receive that pay within 30 days.

Sounds decent, right? Well, it is. But it’s also not much, as the companies also admit. “We recognize this is a small step in a much longer journey, but it’s an important one,” they state.

After all, a big problem with harassment in the workplace is that it’s awkward to report in the first place, and all the more so when the perpetrator of the abuse is responsible for the paychecks. Despite the new clauses, contractors who are harassed by the clients who hired them aren’t very likely to feel comfortable demanding that abuses stop—not if they want to work for that client again. And few freelancers who are in an office on a contract basis will find it easy to complain about abusive staff with permanent positions.

These caveats highlight one of the fundamental perils of a labor market in which more workers are self-employed and fewer enjoy the protections that come with a formal employment relationship with a single organization. The #MeToo movement has sparked a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment and misconduct in US workplaces, which has sent organizations and governments scrambling to find better ways to protect workers against these crimes. Most of these laws and policies, however, focus on employees, with independent contractors getting less robust protection, if indeed they have any at all.

Writing these protections into contracts is one way to help address the abuse of freelancers; another is to enshrine them explicitly in the law.

That’s what New York State did last month in a series of revisions to its sexual harassment laws, which included an amendment extending protection against workplace harassment to non-employees like contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and consultants. That provision went into effect immediately, Kelley Drye & Warren LLP attorney Wayne J. D’Angelo noted at Lexology, whereas other changes like mandatory training and a ban on arbitration and non-disclosure agreements for harassment claims will come into effect over the coming months.

This issue of freelancer harassment will only become more prominent in the coming years: Livni points to an NPR/Marist poll from January that found 32 million Americans were making their living through contract work, 51 percent of whom do not have employer-provided benefits like health insurance or retirement savings plans. A survey last year projected that freelancers could make up a majority of the American workforce within a decade. Employers, meanwhile, are finding more flexible contractor arrangements increasingly attractive as an alternative or supplement to a staff of regular full-time employees. This trends means that challenges once considered specific to freelancers are becoming concerns for the entire workforce.

In the benefits space, this dearth can be solved with innovations like portable benefits, which some lawmakers want to support with public funding and which companies like Etsy are advocating as a new social safety net for the gig economy. In light of the controversy over what is increasingly seen as an unjust inequity, SurveyMonkey recently decided to equalize benefits for employees and contractors in response to pressure from its employees.

It is not hard to imagine companies facing similar demands for equal protections against sexual harassment in the near future. We’ve heard stories, for example, of freelancers experiencing sexual harassment in co-work spaces and finding themselves with no recourse. As more of these stories come out, the need for these protections will become a growing concern for co-working vendors, freelance and gig economy platforms, and organizations that rely on a flexible workforce. Organizations trying to protect their employees from sexual harassment need to start thinking about how to protect their contractors as well; as the recent events in Albany indicate, lawmakers are already getting there.