On Monday, David Tamarkin, the site editor at Epicurious, a Condé Nast food publication, tweeted out a job posting for an editorial assistant. The position, Tamarkin wrote, was “full-time freelance,” meaning the person filling the job would work 40 hours a week and perform the duties of a full-time employee, without any of the benefits and perks. After two days of online outrage and backlash, including users virtuously snitch-tagging the New York State Department of Labor, Tamarkin tweeted on Wednesday that the position would indeed be eligible for benefits.
A spokesperson for Condé Nast told me that discrepancy was a mistake, and that the position had always included benefits.
But it’s easy to see where the mistake came from. Condé Nast employs “full-time freelancers” across many of the sites and magazines in its portfolio. And it’s not just the little guys like editorial assistants—it’s been an open secret for years that even at a prestige publication like The New Yorker, many of its “staff writers” are in fact independent contractors ineligible for health insurance and other benefits.
If that situation sounds shitty, that’s because it is. But it’s also basically the industry standard across nearly every major media organization, including my employer, Gizmodo Media Group, and its parent company Univision.
How do I know? Because I’m in the same boat. I work 30 hours a week for Splinter, usually split into 10-hour shifts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m technically an “independent contractor” and get a 1099 tax form from Univision, the same as any one-off freelancer who submits a piece to the site on commission. At GMG alone, there are at least 15 contractors working collectively hundreds of hours a week on set schedules with no specific end date, according to a spokesperson for the company, which does not classify these workers as “employees” to the IRS. Some of these workers, to be sure, have other jobs or school schedules that make part-time employment preferable, but under this “permalance” system, we are not considered “part-time” in the eyes of the federal government. As a “contractor,” I am not eligible for health insurance, retirement benefits, union membership, paid time-off, or sick days. If the company classified me as a full-time employee of GMG, I would be eligible for those benefits. But that, of course, would cost the company more money. I couldn’t write a blog blasting Condé Nast’s practices without noting my own employer uses a different version of the same scam to protect its bottom line.
Different media organizations call it different names—I generally refer to it as “permalancing,” but “part-time freelance” or “full-time freelance” works too. The laws around who’s an independent contractor and who’s an employee are murky to say the least, and companies use a variety of tactics to skirt them as best they can. At Condé Nast, many “full-time freelancers” are given W-2 tax forms, the same ones that traditional part-time employees receive. But those are issued by Global Employment Solutions, an intermediary recruiting company, not Condé Nast, several current or former “full-time freelancers” at the company, who requested anonymity for obvious reasons, told Splinter. (A former part-time freelancer at The New Yorker said staff writers who are traditional contractors receive 1099 forms.)
“It’s never been totally clear to me how Condé gets away with doing this on such a large scale, but that distinction seems to have something to do with it,” a former part-time freelancer at the company said.
In other words, the part and full-time freelancers at Condé technically work for GES, so Condé doesn’t have to offer them its standard benefits package. GES, of course, offers some benefits, like a health insurance plan, to employees who work 30 hours or more per week, but several current and former employees described the premiums as prohibitively expensive, or the bare minimum required under the Affordable Care Act.
“Most GES people I’ve talked to choose not to be on those plans,” the same former freelancer told me. “I’m pretty sure some people just go without insurance.”
This seems to be the preferred workaround for major media companies—the Time Inc./Meredith conglomerate also uses a third-party system where full-time freelancers technically work for Yoh, a “recruiting and integrated workforce solutions” company, a “full-time freelancer” at that company said. (GMG and Univision have also contracted with Yoh when working with international freelancers.)
“Condé Nast is very proud of how we treat our employees,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While we do use some temporary workers, like many businesses, we ensure that such individuals are properly categorized as employees and eligible for benefits when appropriate.”
Despite the business outlook for digital media companies looking worse than ever, some of these practices have been going on for years—another former Condé Nast freelancer described working 35–40 hours or more in a week with no benefits or paid time off during a stint at the company nearly a decade ago.
At GMG and several other companies, “permalancers” rarely work more than 30 hours a week, keeping us from straying too far into that tricky employment territory.
There’s a case to be made that the vast majority of “permalancers” operating in the wider American media industry are actually employees, even if they’re not paid as such, because their employers want to avoid offering them an expensive benefit package. In practice, all of these workers should be considered full employees. Their hours are often set and they almost always have designated supervisors—two things New York state labor laws say differentiate an employee from a contractor.
My situation at Splinter is better than some. I have Tuesdays and Thursdays off to pursue other freelance work, and I’m paid relatively well by industry standards. The best thing I can say about permalance work is that generally, you do get paid for it, unlike the legion of unpaid writers at sites like SB Nation, a member of the Vox Media empire. And it’s not like we have a choice—this is just how most jobs are now. We’re not stupid, we know that the system is rigged, but for almost every permalancer I know, the consistent money from their steady gig—however exploitative—is the thing that decides whether or not they’ll pay rent on time that month.
Even if the pay is good, these distinctions matter. Just this week, New York magazine laid off 16 part-time workers, as well as 16 full-time staffers. The part-time staffers there were not “freelancers,” but proper part-time employees, and therefore eligible to join the magazine’s newly recognized union, which fought for and secured severance pay for all of the employees who were pushed out. If Condé Nast or GMG or Bustle or Meredith or nearly any other media company that uses “full-time freelance” or independent contractors has layoffs tomorrow, this class of non-employee would get nothing.
When reached for comment on their hiring practices and why the company prefers to pay workers like me as contractors and not employees, a Univision spokesperson said: “Our Writers Guild of America, East collective bargaining agreement ensures GMG contractors are treated fairly.” The spokesperson also noted the company has not had any HR complaints or legal grievances filed regarding its contractor policies.
Gizmodo Media Group’s union—which contractors are not eligible to join—recently negotiated a new contract with management that leaves in place the protections negotiated for contract employees under the previous Gawker Media contract. That provision of the contract reads:
Starting one year after ratification of this agreement, after a contractor has worked an average of five shifts per week over the immediately preceding 52 week period (but allowing three weeks to be disregarded to recognize that contractors take time off) the Company will choose whether to either: (a) offer the contractor the choice between full-time employment or continuation as a contractor; or, (b) terminate the contractor relationship.
Starting one year after ratification of this agreement, after a night shift or weekend contractor has worked an average of five shifts (or one weekend) per week over the immediately preceding 52 week period (but allowing four weeks to be disregarded to recognize that contractors take time off) the Company must pay that contractor no less than the rate it pays to unit employees performing comparable work.
As the contract notes, many of the permalancers at GMG and other organizations are the part-time workers who cover nights, weekends, or other odd-hours shifts. A night editor job, for example, may be only 30-hours a week, but when those hours are distributed into five six-hour shifts, it’s effectively a full-time job. On my three-day schedule, I manage to supplement my income with other freelance gigs, but in many permalance jobs, that’s just not feasible. For Condé employees pulling 40 hour weeks during normal daytime shifts, “freelance” is just a blatant lie.
“Condé offered me a decent day rate for an open-ended assignment,” a former “full-time freelancer” told me. “The project grew in scope, and it wasn’t long before it was tacitly decided I’d be coming in every day and not pursuing anything external that could interfere.”
It’s worth noting that despite the tone-deaf job posting, the buck doesn’t stop with Tamarkin. Editors like him, or my supervisors at Splinter, are rarely responsible for the broader hiring practices inside a company. (No, they didn’t make me write that.) The people calling these shots are the same ones who are the bad guys in every other media story you read these days: the ones that pivot to video based on phony Facebook numbers, who ramp up traffic goals to meet arbitrary demands by the liquor company marketing execs they got drinks with last night, who decide that the company needs “restructuring” and that a bunch of your friends are out of a job.
According to Condé Nast, the Epicurious job listing was a mistake, but if you swap out the name of the site, it wouldn’t necessarily be. Almost every website, every magazine, every TV network uses workers like me. They’re usually just a little better at hiding it.
Correction, March 25, 2019, 4:45 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the number of contractors at GMG not classified as employees to the IRS.
If you’re a full-time freelancer at Condé Nast or anywhere else that uses a cynical, predatory system of permalancing to cut costs, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.