Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Cancel culture, indeed: COVID-19 is going to slam the gig economy

Freelancers, creatives, cooks and other self-employed people are already feeling the effect of coronavirus, writes Andie Bulman.

Freelancers, creatives and the self-employed are already feeling the sting of coronavirus

Andie Bulman is worried about coronavirus, and not just for her health. (Alex Kennedy/CBC)

I could be a poster child for the gig economy.

I own a small business, do frequent catering gigs, perform as a stand-up comic, contribute to CBC, write short films, act with a sketch comedy troupe, teach the occasional cooking class and take on a seasonal contract with Choices for Youth.

The gig economy gets a bad rep, but I love how each day is different. Wednesday, I'm making waffles at my café, and Thursday I'm onstage performing.

There's also an excellent community of gig workers in Newfoundland. I see them daily; at libraries and cafes where we try to get our work done, taking turns watching each other's stuff when coffee refills and bathroom breaks are required.

It's nice to be part of this weird, strange community.

However, the gig economy has its downsides too.

I'm not protected through a union, so I'm not guaranteed work. I'm always hustling—always thinking about future projects—and I have an incredibly hard time saying "no" to a gig.

No benefits, greater risk

There are no health benefits, no pensions, and certainly no dental coverage. I have no idea how my teeth are doing, but I suspect they could be better. Overall, my work isn't safe or secure.

A hard winter can take a massive chunk out of my potential earnings. I lost four catering gigs in January alone, two in February, and now I'm on the receiving end of a slew of cancellations due to coronavirus. Most significantly, I have no sickness pay.

Coffee shops, restaurants and other small businesses are at risk because of novel coronavirus. (Jessica Pope/CBC)

COVID-19 is about to make all these downsides far worse. I work in food and the arts, both of which are about to be hit hard.

Health care professionals are recommending social distancing, large gatherings are being banned or cancelled, and folks are being urged to stock up on groceries. This is going to hurt restaurants, caterers, food trucks and farmers' markets.

Everyone will be understaffed, supplies will be scarce and customers will be hard to find. The overhead on food businesses is so marginal that even the smallest change to projections can shut down an operation.

Arts and entertainment, sadly, are areas that people often see as "extra" and "unnecessary," so sympathy for starving artists during hard times is scarce.

I've never understood this because film, television, books, theatre, dance, and paintings enrich our lives. Regardless of your feelings towards creative folks, there has already been an undeniable loss to the artistic economy.

Each cancellation has a ripple effect

Already, coronavirus has shut down music festivals and film premieres around the globe. The Canadian Screen Awards were rescheduled and the Junos were cancelled faster than Don Cherry. These are huge economic blows. For every cancelled event, there are a collective of hardworking producers, writers, drivers, personal assistants and technicians who lost out on work they were counting on.

Locally, artists are being hit hard as well. Performer, artist and event coordinator Allison Collins has already cancelled meetings aimed at organizing a big event for April 10, which may be called off. Her main source of income is event planning and performing, so she's braced for her wallet to take a hit.

"I was too proud to apply for the funding for artists during the state of emergency," she said. "But I'm really worried about the upcoming season. That's when I make the bulk of my dollars."

Both taxi drivers and bar owners could take a hit from COVID-19. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

So what's the solution? How can we help the artists, giggers and entrepreneurs in our midst? We probably cannot count on the federal government.

Justin Trudeau announced Thursday that the government is allocating $1 billion toward the coronavirus crisis — an impressive announcement. Interestingly, Trudeau's plan has also set aside $5 million to speed up access to employment insurance. Usually, there is a grace period of one week before people can make a claim, but his government will be waiving this period during the coronavirus scare.

While Thursday's announcement failed to acknowledge part-time workers, entrepreneurs, artists and everyone else who considers themselves part of the gig economy, on Friday the prime minister said the government would be introducing a fiscal stimulus package in the days ahead. No one should have to worry about making the rent, buying groceries or paying for child care because of COVID-19, he said.

Financial support will be key, because most in the gig economy cannot access employment insurance because they don't qualify as a full-time worker.

Even those who do qualify may still only receive 55 per cent of their income as the maximum benefit, and in a province with high rents, high heat and insanely expensive insurance, 55 per cent of income is not enough.

Rule No. 1: Don't be a troll

I guess we're going to have to help each other out.

Here's what you can do if you're a pensioned permanent worker with paid sick leave and a healthy savings account: first, don't be a troll. That is, don't spend next month mocking and looking down on the people who don't have the benefits you have.

Don't tell yourself they are in financial trouble because they didn't work as hard or aren't as skilled.

Second, buy restaurant gift certificates. Yes, we shouldn't be gathering. Avoiding public spaces and making food at home might be the new normal for the next little while, but calling your favourite restaurant, brewery or food truck and buying a gift certificate for a later date will help that business stabilize.

Andie Bulman earns a living through a number of ways, from cooking to catering to comedy. (Mike Moore/CBC)

Same goes for all small businesses, not just food! Buy certificates for all the little shops and services that contribute to the culture of this place.

The work of artists, entrepreneurs and part-timers is important and valid. Show up for them.

The cab industry will likely be impacted, too. Fewer events means fewer calls, so consider tipping generously next time you're in a taxi.

Also, pay your bills on time! If you have the means, don't leave your house cleaner or repairman hanging until next week.

Donate to theatre companies, art galleries or consider being a patron of the arts. Performances are going to be cancelled, putting actors and musicians out of work, so support them.

Stage shows of all kinds are bound to be cancelled in the coming months. Why not donate to the theatre company or artists you were planning to enjoy this year? If their show has been cancelled or postponed, maybe you can purchase their work online.

The work of artists, entrepreneurs and part-timers is important and valid. Show up for them.

This virus is scary, but it won't be so bad if we help each other.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Andie Bulman

Contributor

Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's.

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