Sunday, March 27, 2016

1099 Economy Skewed Against Photographers

I detest the "sharing economy" so much, I decided to share a letter with you where I recently turned down yet another offer of 1099 "employment." The set-up is that a large company with operating capital in the tens of millions offered me a position photographing hotels run by a large global hospitality chain.

Although the person who offered me the "job" said there were over 200 hotels in my region (LA, MS, AL, AR) that needed to be covered, they would not answer my questions about how many photographers they planned to hire to complete this task, which to me was a clear indication that not all of the 200+ hotels would be mine to photograph; that they planned to over-hire photographers in my region in order to have the hotels photographed as quickly as possible (i.e. by the end of this coming summer), and then drop everybody like a hot brick as soon as their contract with the hotel chain was satisfied, while the company made off with high profits, but paying photographers a so-so fee with no taxes taken out or benefits provided -- and of course, no guarantee of future work nor the obligation to find future work. Also, as is the standard with 1099 sub-contracting, the employer has no obligation to pay overtime nor sick leave, nor accrued leave nor paid vacation time. If you are injured on the job, if your car blows a tire on the job, it's all on you; the employer has no responsibility beyond paying an agreed-upon wage. If you're sick, no pay. If you get stuck in traffic on the way to the job, you don't get paid. Photographers wouldn't even be paid for the time it takes them to drive to the property they're shooting, regardless of how long it took. Photographers were also required to place all business expenses on their own credit cards for reimbursement, which automatically disqualifies any photographer with poor or limited credit, which follows the premise that having limited income or bad credit counts against you when looking for good-paying work. There is no recourse or system for lodging complaints. It's all 100% geared to serve the employer, all at the expense of the worker.

Making the offer even more skewed in favor of the employer was the requirement to purchase about $1200-2000 worth of photography gear to meet the standards of their system -- gear that I would normally rent and charge to the client for a high-end commercial shoot: three separate flashes with diffusers, stands, and remotes for all, plus a very expensive fisheye lens, as my own wide-angle lens did not meet their specs for virtual tour photography, and if you didn't do virtual tour photography as part of the assignments, you would not be offered as much work as other photographers who already owned a fixed 15mm Canon or Nikon lens that costs around $700 (and not many do since they are used so rarely in day-to-day photography). Rather than purchase the equipment in bulk and allowing photographers to use the gear, they choose to charge a lower rate to clients for photography, and force the photographers to pay the company expenses. After thinking about things for a few days, I ended up so bothered by such a ridiculous offer being dressed up in doublespeak like "freedom" and "flexibility," that I decided to decline their offer while stating my specific reasons in detail, which sum up my general views about the so-called "gig economy," which to me seems like just another scam where corporations shift all their tax burden and operating costs onto the very people who work for them. It's tough enough being freelance; it's even harder when companies don't even offer anything resembling a real job anymore. The entire purpose of the company setting up photography shoots in the manner they chose appeared to be to increase the net profit for a small circle, by using a temporary workforce who reluctantly agreed to work for mediocre pay, a startling lack of benefits or incentives, and absolutely no chance of job security, regularity, or longevity. Kind of a pay-you-then-go-away deal. It seemed like the model was to use a handful of photographers for the summer and then get rid of them as soon as possible, while telling them the company offered "freedom" (read: no job security) and "flexibility" (read: expendability). Almost needless to say, the job recruiter never replied to the message below, which only proves to me that I made a good point. Although the "job" I described here might work out OK for a college student looking for a temporary summer gig, as a real bona fide job it was nothing.

Thanks to the 1099 economy, there is no longer any shared sense of obligation between employer and worker, and these as-needed "gigs" seem to be getting shorter and shorter, while companies treat their work force like a disposable light bulb that can be turned on and off as needed. I have absolutely no desire to do work for any company whose very first thought is to pawn their business expenses and tax burden off onto their work force, whom they already consider soon-to-be-terminated expendable cogs in a moneymaking enterprise.

After looking over the lists and requirements, I am afraid I will have to decline the offer to work for _______. 

The main reason is the 1099 factor. I thought the job description and pay rate were excellent -- I love photographing hotels as well as traveling regionally -- but being designated
a sub-contractor means essentially that I would be part of an "as-needed only" workforce, which does not justify having to purchase close to $1200 worth of gear to meet your requirements, or letting go of other income streams that I would have to do to be available for at least two weeks per month. 1099 employment only lasts as long as it's convenient to the employer, and I need a more secure offer of work from a company that wants me to
stay long-term, and doesn't consider me expendable from the get-go.

As I told you in our conversation, I had previously signed on as a sub-contractor with two other companies that provide photography for rental properties, and after having only
two work orders, I have not received a single work assignment in almost two years, despite both companies assuring me up front of plenty of work. I understand what you said about close to 200 hotels needing to be shot, but after that dried up, I'm sure things would drop off considerably. 

My previous position with _________ had a very similar model to the one you described to me; however, I was given employee status along with benefits, and necessary
camera gear was often provided to me at no cost, aside from owning a decent camera body and flash. I was fully insured for all travel, and also gained benefits from hotel chains I stayed
at and frequent flyer miles with airlines I used.
As a sub-contractor with ___________, my travel would not be insured, and I would be likely to incur a sizable tax liability since you would not be taking taxes out of my paychecks. 
This is part of a growing trend that I am not necessarily in agreement with, where companies more or less shift their tax obligations (1099) and operating expenses (gear requirements) 
onto their workers. 

I probably would take the position if I was granted actual employee status with a monthly guarantee of work and benefits or incentives, with a contract guaranteeing employment for at least five years with a buyout clause if the company folded or was sold. 
If in time you'd care to make me a similar offer, I will consider it.