Amid the Recent Increase in Omicron Covid Cases, Freelancers Are Struggling To Stay Afloat

As New York approaches two full years of existing in the pandemic, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 serves as a reminder to some of what life was like in the spring of 2020. Throughout the city, New Yorkers are met with similar anxieties that they faced in the past, as 31% of Covid tests have been positive in the last seven days. Governor Kathy Hochul has reinstated the mask mandate and, for some gig workers in North Brooklyn, work has once again become routinely inconsistent and unpredictable. 

Photo provided by Rory Higginson

Rory Higginson is a freelance photographer and videographer who works in nightlife venues throughout Bushwick. The increased business he experienced following the initial waves of the pandemic was cut short last month by the recent spike in cases.

Higginson contracted the Omicron variant the week leading up to Christmas and could not take on any gigs. Higginson tested negative on Christmas Eve, however, his work has decreased in the following weeks.  

“Some weeks, all my jobs fall through. Events get canceled, clients get Covid, and I don’t know if it’s going to get better,” said Higginson. 

“Finding new clients has been easy, but the inconsistencies of events have been a bigger issue. Events cancel at the last minute, meaning that I don’t have time to find another gig for that night,” he added. 

While the nightlife industry has been hit time and time again by the pandemic, its workers are not the only ones struggling to make ends meet. When the city shut down in March 2020, hair salons were forced to close. As a result, many hairstylists who rent chairs from salons were out of work. Now, amid the Omicron wave, work has slowed down again.

Photo provided by Katie Grossman

Katie Grossman was a hairstylist at Hair Metal Salon in Williamsburg when the initial work pause went into effect. For over a month, Grossman called the Department of Labor in hopes of qualifying for unemployment insurance. Even when she finally received weekly benefits and the stimulus checks, the income wasn’t enough. Grossman often relied on selling candles and jewelry to make ends meet. When the city opened back up, Grossman began renting a chair at High Horse Salon in Greenpoint. For a while, before this recent wave, it was smooth sailing.

“Things were finally feeling consistent and stable,” said Grossman. 

Now, however, work at the salon has slowed down. With growing concerns expressed by clients and sick call-ins, Grossman’s income has decreased. 

“People are booking, but they aren’t necessarily keeping their appointments,” said Grossman. 

Every time a client cancels their booking at the last minute, Grossman only receives half of what she would have made from the appointment. Her biggest financial concern currently is not being able to pay her chair rental. 

“Please cancel as soon as possible if [you are] feeling sick. Booth renter stylists will actually lose money when you cancel the day of, which is why we have a 24 hour cancellation policy,” said Grossman. 

Although freelance work is inconsistent right now, there are outliers. Travis O’Brien is a freelance photographer, works on-set tech and runs the Bushwick Art Department. O’Brien said that Omicron makes a normal workday more difficult, because he has to arrive 20 minutes early to get tested, sign daily waivers and partake in contact tracing. But, opposed to others, O’Brien also said he has seen more work coming in now than ever before. 

Still, despite the increased business coming to O’Brien over recent months, he expressed that the life of a freelancer, particularly during a pandemic, is no walk in the park.

Currently, his biggest financial concern is health insurance, which O’Brien said costs him over $6,000 annually. 

“It’s hard work, with no company benefits. Each week is different with new people. Schedules are always changing. Ten-hour on-set days are not easy, but they are better than doing the same thing day-in and day-out,” he added. 

Brooklyn’s gig workers will likely continue to face inconsistent workflows and lose income as the city continues its fight to stop the spread of Covid. When there is so much uncertainty, supporting the people who live paycheck-to-paycheck is important.

If you’re a freelancer, learn more about your rights and protections here.

Featured image: provided by Katie Grossman.

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