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By Chris Opfer
The White House has been touting job training programs and apprenticeships since Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was sworn in some six months ago, but one advocate says so far they’re leaving out a big slice of the workforce: freelancers and other independent contractors.
“Freelancers are really trying to figure it out on their own,” Freelancers Union President Sara Horowitz told Bloomberg Law. “Over a third of the workforce are having to use the tax code as the funder of their training because the government has no money going to this.”
The Labor Department Oct. 16 unveiled an apprenticeship task force, comprising business leaders, labor unions, and government officials. Horowitz said apprenticeship programs and other public-private training initiatives are largely employer-sponsored and not geared toward freelancers and gig workers, who may have multiple jobs. Those workers are typically classified as independent contractors, rather than employees.
“Success in government training is a full-time W-2 job,” Horowitz said. “If you don’t set up the metric correctly, you limit who can participate.”
Businesses tend to be hesitant to train contractors for fear that they’ll have to reclassify them as traditional employees, entitled to minimum wages and overtime, covered by workers’ compensation insurance, and entitled to unemployment benefits. Independent contractors, unlike employees, can write off training costs as business expenses for tax purposes.
The DOL task force’s goal is “to identify strategies and proposals to promote apprenticeships, especially in high-growth, emerging sectors where apprenticeship programs can grow,” spokeswoman Jillian Rogers told Bloomberg Law. “The American economy is dynamic and the department is eager to hear the thoughts of the task force members on how to expand apprenticeship opportunities for self-employed Americans.”
Much of the Labor Department’s training efforts entails grants to state and local governments. Some of those programs include coaching and career counseling for job seekers and workshops for freelancers aimed at brand promotion, networking, and financial management, according to the DOL.
“Generally, I agree that the training programs should be more adaptable to our current economy, which includes more and more freelance workers,” Matthew Poland, senior program manager at Jobs for the Future, told Bloomberg BNA. JFF is a nonprofit group that designs education and training programs.
Poland pointed to two programs in California that are geared particularly to freelance workers and those who pick up gig jobs through online platforms like ride-hail operators Uber and Lyft, home work job board TaskRabbit, and grocery shopping service Instacart. The California Community Colleges offers a “pathway to self-employment” program, and the San Francisco Bay Area Video Coalition’s Gig Union stages workshops for freelancers and entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department has taken steps under Acosta that could expand the independent contractor market. The DOL in June scrapped an Obama-era guidance document in which the department took the position that “most workers” should be classified as employees under federal wage-and-hour law.
The Freelancers Union and gig platform Upwork Oct. 17 released an annual survey showing that 36 percent of workers get at least some of their income from freelance jobs. More than half (53 percent) of those workers did freelance work in addition to holding down more traditional jobs.
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