Friday, April 27, 2012

Labor law protections diminishing

Increasing use of freelancers aids business more than workers

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
When news came out Monday that the Tribune was laying off a score of its suburban TribLocal reporters and editors in favor of outsourcing the work to another company, it caught me unawares and left me disappointed, but it failed to shock me.

The Trib seemed to have invested a lot in its TribLocal venture to cover suburban news. Its hiring of reporters and editors to provide that coverage was a hopeful sign in an industry that in recent years frequently inspires Dante’s “Abandon all hope ye who enter” this profession. Don’t get me wrong, I still am excited about the possibilities digital media brings to news storytelling, but my optimism about re-entering the industry full-time has plunged to depths I never expected when I was laid off in December 2010.

My first exposure to the Trib story came via a Facebook post by noted media blogger Jim Romenesko. Then came one of several email news roundups I receive each day from Crain’s Chicago Business, in which one of the headlines promised more details of the Tribune’s decision to outsource its local suburban reporting to Journatic LLC, a Chicago-based company in which the Trib reportedly is invested. So I followed the links and read.

According to Crain’s, Journatic’s agreement with the Tribune ends its contract to provide real estate coverage to the company that laid me off nearly 17 months ago.

Here’s the rub: Journatic has offshore data-journalists who electronically gather all kinds of information that is specific to local communities, according to a Thursday post by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon. He interviewed Journatic founder Brian Timpone, who told Beaujon that Journatic seeks to automate the process of  compiling the data it gathers into stories.

He admits it’s not Pulitzer-quality material, but it is community news, from schools to police, that the company produces at a very low cost. That part of the company’s operation appears to me to be brilliant.

But Journatic does need some local workers, and is hiring people like me for less than half of what some of us were getting paid just two years ago; further, Journatic is making the same, perfectly legal end run around our nation’s labor laws that many newspaper companies and other corporations are doing these days.

By hiring contractors instead of full-time employees, the employer avoids paying into Social Security and providing perks like health insurance. Further, at least in Illinois, companies don’t have to pay unemployment insurance for contractors. All this comes at a huge savings for employers.

But workers are left holding the bag — having to provide their own health coverage, no longer assured of steady hours or steady income, and lacking some of the legal protections enjoyed by full-time employees. Finally, laid-off workers can collect unemployment benefits, as small as they are. Freelancers/contractors, however, are restricted in that. Technically, they don’t get laid off, they lose or end their contract.

To be fair, some freelancers I have come to know over the years relish their independence, but many others chose that route with hopes of getting a foot in the door toward full-time work as an employee, not as a contractor.

As I continue to descend through what continues to be one of the worst, most challenging periods of my life, I finding myself questioning the state of this country. In a nation that is supposed to espouse individual freedoms, and despite all the laws and regulations pertaining to corporate America, why does it seem that big business ultimately gets more breaks, more deals than the little guys do? Even labor laws seem to have lost their luster in recent years. Is it just me, or does it seem as if we are becoming the land of the free market and the home of the slave laborers?

The growing use of freelancers/contractors appears to me to erode the laws geared toward protecting workers, and I do not believe that is good for our nation.

Sadly, it is legal, and politicians will defend it as necessary for the nation as a result of the Great Recession. In tough times, we all have to bite the bullet, you know — some of us, apparently, more than others.