Coronavirus and freelance journalists

The following is a text on which the NUJ statement published on Monday 16 March 2020 is based. See the official statement for links to further relevant material.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis that will affect everyone to some degree, whether or not they are infected with the COVID-19 virus. Workplaces are shutting down, schools closing, and public gatherings cancelled. All for good reason, based on sound scientific advice and rigorous risk assessment.

Journalists are like all others impacted by coronavirus, freelance journalists especially so. Freelances make up around a third of the NUJ membership, and across the media industry the proportion of self-employed is increasing. The NUJ is here to help its freelance members during the coronavirus crisis.

The economic cost of coronavirus is massive, and whilst the news focus has been on global stock market losses, it is ordinary working people who suffer most. We are told to socially self-isolate, and for employed workers this means staying away from places of work. When they fall ill employees may be entitled to sick pay, but what of the self-employed?

At the outset of the outbreak there were calls for the self-employed to be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, and a petition calling for such change has upwards of 200,000 signatures. Please add your name to the petition.

The recent UK budget saw changes to the sick pay system, but the chancellor provided nothing for self-employed people who self-isolate, other than to suggest they apply for Employment Support Allowance and Universal Credit. This is unacceptable.

Government failure to extend sick pay to the self-employed is an abdication of responsibility. ESA and Universal Credit are welfare benefits targeted at those on very low incomes, and the application process is long and complex. Such benefits will not help those who depend for their living on earnings from self-employment: earnings which in many cases will be lost as a result of illness or self-isolation.

We all want to do the right thing and act responsibly in a crisis, but social responsibility goes both ways. Individuals must avoid action that may harm others, but those who govern society have a duty to make this possible. Otherwise we will see the most vulnerable – in this case the self-employed – continue to put themselves and others at risk by continuing to work in social settings.

Contrary to popular impression, freelance journalists do not all sit at home in their pyjamas, tapping away at laptop keyboards. A recent survey conducted by the NUJ revealed that around 40% undertake work on clients’ premises, or on assignment. Photographers are the most visible example, but writers and editors often work away from home, and we know that some have lost income as a result of coronavirus-related restrictions.

Official guidance is now to self-isolate at the first sign of a cough or fever, and this wise counsel should be heeded. But for the self-isolated there is no easy availability of testing to determine whether any infection they have is COVID-19 or simply a head cold. This puts freelance journalists and other self-employed people in a difficult if not impossible position, and the state offers them no practical support.

When it comes to NUJ freelance members affected by coronavirus, we urge you to seek expert advice from the Freelance Office regarding contractual matters and cancelled work. Those on very low incomes, or who have lost all income as a result of coronavirus, should consider applying for ESA or Universal Credit. ESA is paid to those too sick to work, provided they meet certain conditions. It is worth £73.10 a week, or £57.90 for the under-25s.

The government is also temporarily removing the minimum income floor for universal credit, which takes into account how much you would normally expect to earn in a month when calculating entitlement to universal credit. Not having the minimum income floor means that applicants can better claim for time lost to sickness.

Local authorities will also have access to a hardship fund to help vulnerable people in their area.

On the downside, many self-employed people face a higher tax bill from April of this year, when the so-called IR35 rule is extended to the private sector. That could mean thousands of contractors and freelances will pay more tax.

On the question of Statutory Sick Pay, please write to your MP calling for the benefit to be extended immediately to the self-employed.

The NUJ’s Health and Safety Committee has provided information for members, chapels and branches on coronavirus risk assessments.

Stay safe, keep well, and look after those around you!