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How Freelancers Can Hustle Smarter in the COVID Era

Though the nature of gig work is ephemeral, it has become a way of life for 59 million Americans, or roughly 36% of the workforce.  Freelancing offers myriad benefits, including flexible schedules, independence, and the freedom to turn down undesirable work.  But those advantages are tradeoffs for a lack of security.  During times of uncertainty, like the pandemic-induced economic downturn, business can be challenging in unexpected ways.

That was the case for Leandra Weekes, a Fort Lauderdale-based freelance public relations consultant.

She happened into freelancing seven years ago while interning at a local hospitality firm.  The firm’s director hired her for a personal project, and that led to several referrals.  Her freelance work gave her much-needed experience in her field, and even when she was hired for in-house corporate roles, she continued freelancing to keep her portfolio updated.

But the pandemic upended her industry, causing many of the businesses and publishers she worked with to shut down or lay off workers.  She also witnessed notable PR firms go out of business.  This led her to question her professional future.

“I dreamed of working at these firms, admired the work their principals performed, and to watch them make the decision to close up shop sometimes made me question my purpose in this work,” she said.  She also said that the pre-pandemic rise of “slow PR”, a more immediate and data-centered marketing approach, further hampered her prospects.

To counter the drop in PR work, she started offering digital marketing services.  She’d been honing her skills since the early 2000s and, rather than a Hail Mary, saw the pivot as a natural progression of her business.

Like Weekes, Texas-based video producer Kimani Oletu began freelancing on a whim.  He’d set out to gain extra experience beyond his college coursework and watched his client list grow.  But early on in the pandemic, a steady source of income quickly dried up.  Shoots and travel were sometimes impossible due to lockdowns, and he lost his full-time job, which drained his resources for some of his planned projects.

For the last months of 2020, he lived off savings, took online classes to learn graphic design skills, and bought new studio lights to practice lighting scenes.  Eventually, he pivoted from filming projects to editing and graphic design jobs.

“If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed,” Oletu said.  “I feel as though I became a lot more ‘hungry’ for work during this period.”

He found himself actively seeking new opportunities to improve and demonstrate his skills, and according to Rafael Espinal, Executive Director of the Freelancers Union, this is exactly what freelancers need to do to stay ahead of the pandemic recession.

“All freelancers should be taking this moment to upskill and diversify their portfolios,” he said.  “If you are a web designer, you can learn the basics of graphic design, videographers can learn video editing, writers can learn marketing.”

He also said that opportunities are there even though the economic downturn might seem discouraging. Startups, small businesses, and even some larger companies have turned to freelancers to fill the gaps left by furloughs and layoffs.

But in seeking out new opportunities, Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) Co-executive Christina M. Frey warns that freelancers shouldn’t chase new opportunities simply because they’re the most popular or lucrative.

“Just because people are succeeding in this area doesn’t mean that you will,” she said.  She encouraged freelancers to think about what’s most important to them – e.g., flexibility, passion, pay, etc. – and find opportunities that align with their values.

When times are tough, freelancers may be tempted to jump at whatever jobs come their way, even if that means lowering their prices or saying yes to gigs that they’d normally turn down.  Espinal warned against this, cautioning freelancers to look out for misclassified gigs where employers might be treating contractors like full-time employees without extending the necessary benefits.

Instead of feeling pressured to take less than desirable jobs, Espinal said freelancers should explore all possible avenues for support in their professional journey, from financial relief for independent workers to free online courses, like the free skills programming offered through the Freelancers Union’s Freelancers Hub.

Frey stressed the importance of taking classes, “especially if they’re interactive and you can get feedback on your work”.  She also said freelancers should look for resources from the organizations they belong to.  For example, the EFA offers its members a short publication called “So You Want to Be An Editor” and, like the Freelancers Union, provides free monthly educational webinars.

But in addition to upskilling, she said networking was as important as ever.  By joining groups and associations, and by connecting with other freelancers, gig workers can build community and stumble into new opportunities.  But she warned that it’s a long-range game that could pay dividends in a month or in years’ time.

Regardless of where they are in their journey, however, she urged workers not to deprioritize self-care in pursuit of new business.

“As a freelancer and an entrepreneur, you are the most valuable asset in your business,” she said.  “Take care of yourself.”

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