Monday, March 26, 2007

"Freelance" is not a magic word

free * lance {'frE-"lan(t)s}, noun. 1: a. a mercenary soldier, especially of the Middle Ages. b. a person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization. 2: a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

-- Webster's Dictionary

Animation freelancing in 2007 is a lot less romantic than the fantasy of board artists and sheet timers riding around in full battle armor on their war-horses, hiring themselves out to the lord of Castle Disney or the seigneur of Hold Nickelodeon.

Nor should anyone be fooled into thinking of the freelancer as some abstract ideal, the noble artisan who "acts independently" of the monolith of Big Animation. In this "buyer's market" for talent, it's less an issue of the artist having no "long-term commitment" to the employer, than it is the employer having no commitment whatsoever to the artist.

There's really nothing wrong with freelance work per se, and there's no reason why an energetic, well-connected artist can't make a living at it. But as with anything else in this business, you need to know the rules, and you need to be careful. We'd like to puncture some of the myths that surround freelancing.

Let's get our definitions straight: we refer to "freelancers" as those employees who work at home or away from the studio premises, typically (but not exclusively) at piece rates. Freelancers are not the same as independent contractors. Freelancers are employees, independent contractors are not.

  • MYTH #1: Freelancers have none of the protections of full-time employees, and they are not covered under the Guild contract.

Untrue: a freelancer is as much an employee as somebody who sits at a desk on the studio premises for forty hours a week. There is a simple test: is your employer taking taxes out of your paycheck? If the answer is yes, you're an employee. End of discussion.

  • MYTH #2: Freelancers don't get health or pension contributions for their work.

Again, not true. As long as you're an employee of a Guild shop working under the Guild's jurisdiction, the employer must make health and pension contributions, regardless of whether you work on the premises or at home.

For scripts and storyboards, pages 76 and 77 of the Guild contract booklet list the minimum per-piece contributions. For piece work in other categories, pay should be prorated so that the hourly rate and benefit contributions do not fall below the CBA minimums. Before you do any freelance work you should have a clear understanding of the basis on which you are to be paid, and the basis on which your benefit contributions are going to be calculated.

  • MYTH #3: The studio can get around the Guild contract by calling you an "independent contractor".

Independent contractors are not covered under the Guild contract since they are not employees of the company they are performing work for. If you're an independent contractor, no benefits, no contract protections ...

As an independent contractor, you will be responsible not only for health insurance, but also for taxes, Social Security, etc., and you will need to have a business license. In addition to sales and income taxes, you may owe business taxes and fees to the city in which you reside.

In order for you to be a bona fide independent contractor, you must be truly independent. State and Federal tax regulations define what kinds of work can legally be considered as independent contracting. Rule of thumb: the work must be of a nature that is independent of the direction and control of the company for which the work is being performed.

So, for example, it would be very difficult for an employer to claim that work such as animation, assistant animation, sheet timing, checking, or any form of clean-up, could be done by independent subcontractors, since the nature of the work is defined by the control and supervision exercised by the employer.

On the other hand, most writing and storyboard work could be subcontracted ... but not rewrites, revisions, story editing, cleanups, etc. Pre-production models and visdev could probably be independently subcontracted, but if the company starts to require any kind of revisions, then by definition the work is no longer "independent".

Bottom line: to survive in the dangerous world of freelancing, you need to have your lance sharpened and your faithful steed well-shod ... and you need to contact your Guild whenever the lord of the manor is shortchanging you ...


Anonymous said...

ugh... why does the union make everything so complicated...

unions have been obsolete for decades...

their only job is to make it seem like they're doing something useful.

Jeff Massie said...

What is it about freelancing, or my post, that demonstrates that the union has taken a simple subject and made it more complicated?

Elucidate, please ... ???

Anonymous said...

Ignore the studio production hacks that come online and try to stir things up, Jeff.

Steve said...

For what it's worth, most of the writers I have hired, I've hired off their good work as freelancers.

I don't know if that translates to timers and the like... but just an FYI.

0 Steve

Anonymous said...

Here's a question...

I've encountered doing freelance work(not independent contracting, as taxes were taken out) where the studio wouldn't pay for holidays, so it lowered the rate of pay. Is that OK under the union contract?

Jeff Massie said...

Curious freelancer, it's difficult to diagnose your situation over the blog. I suggest you give Steve Hulett a call when he gets back on 4/2, and we can figure out whether this is a violation of the contract.

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