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Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal

Abstract

“It’s the end of work as we know it,” reports consulting firm Accenture in a paper about the “rise of the extended workforce.” (Gartside, Silverstone, Farley & Cantrell, Trends Reshaping the Future of HR: The Rise of the Extended Workforce, at 3 (Accenture 2013). The report predicts that, “[i]n the future, organizations’ competitive success will hinge on...workers who aren’t employees at all.” The legal nature of employment is changing and has been changing for quite some time; fewer and fewer workers are “employees.”

It is not new or novel to recognize that, from a legal perspective, there are many benefits to employers who hire independent contractors rather than employees. There have long existed incentives for employers to characterize workers as independent. What is shifting, however, isthe workers’ narrative about independence. At least for creative and highly skilled workers, the changing narrative is one of free agency: ditch the man and chart your own course, which writers and entrepreneurs Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner have dubbed the “naked economy.” (Coonerty & JNeuner, The Rise of the Naked Economy: How to Benefit from the Changing Workplace (Palgrave MacMillan 2013)).

Why is this economy “naked”? While acknowledging vulnerability, the reference to nudity appears to emphasize freedom: “stripping work bare” to reinvent it with the essentials required for productivity and satisfaction. This frame of mind places high value on control and flexibility. It eschews the rigid 9-5 workday, with its commute and face time. It emphasizes work-life balance, changes in technology that allow for flexibility and the dream of charting one’s own destiny. All of these factors are coalescing to push people (at least, creative and highly skilled people) to choose independence.

Independent work, however, has its drawbacks. One of the significant problems in the independent workforce is nonpayment of invoices. 40% of respondents to a Freelancers Union survey reported trouble collecting unpaid fees from clients. (Freelancers Union, Independent, Innovative, and Unprotected: How the Old Safety Net Is Failing America’s New Workforce (2010). Of those respondents, 83% reported getting paid late; 33% reported never getting paid; and 28% reported getting paid less than billed.

This short paper addresses independent workers’ very specific and all-too-common difficulties in getting paid. It is written for a mixed audience; it is intended to be both practical and accessible. There is hope that it will further the academic conversation, but it is also written for attorneys, policymakers and independent workers. Part I defines the naked economy and tracks the rise in independent work. Part II discusses the problem of nonpayment. Parts III, IV and V, respectively, provide an overview of the contractual tools, legislative reforms and market responses that are evolving to minimize the risk of nonpayment. The paper concludes that technology and private enterprise are evolving to meet the challenges of the independent workforce; however, contracting norms and legal structures must also rise to address the vulnerabilities of free agency.

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