Freelance Isn’t Free. Neither are the Donuts.

By 2020-03-13Work

Freelance Isn’t Free

Neither are the Donuts

Nobody expects bakeries to give away free donuts.  Bakeries don’t expect their employees to work for free.  If bakery owners expected free work, they’d be out of business.  That’s not to say all owners are honest, upstanding members of society.  They may scam employees in various ways, but the employees almost always get a paycheck.

There’s a lot of freelance restaurant workers in Maine.  In the summer, there’s plenty of hospitality jobs along the coast.  During the winter, all the tourists are gone.  Coastal hotels and restaurants close for the season.

Finding work in the off-season can be tough. Many seasonal restaurant employees migrate with the tourists, going to places like Florida for the winter. Even though most of these jobs are temporary, workers get paid well.  Freelancers arrive in the tourist season, walk into an establishment, and get hired.

There’s no tourist season for tech or creative freelancers.  No guarantee that if you show up at a location during a certain time, you’ll have work.

Freelance opportunities for graphic designers, writers, web developers and software engineers come in different packages.  Some pay well, others pay peanuts.  Some companies expect freelancers to work for free.

A bakery owner wouldn’t expect a seasonal baker to work for free.  Why do companies expect creative freelancers to work for free?

The Downside of Freelance

Freelance has ups and downs. It’s hard not having enough money to pay the bills.  It’s also hard juggling many clients with different demands.  Freelancers need to constantly find new work and manage time to complete projects.

More companies are now turning to freelancers instead of hiring full time employees.  Every year, the demand for freelance work increases.   With higher demand comes more opportunities, and more problems.

Full time employees have workplace protections to ensure they get paid on time.  Freelancers can protect themselves by being aware of things like…

The Fake Job

A company posts an ad for a specific job. Part of the interview process requires freelancers to create a sample project. After collecting several samples, the company cancels the job ad, never to hire anyone.

The company may post many job ads, each asking for a different sample project.  They’ll select the best submissions to complete their final project.  No one will be hired, and the ads will be removed once all the pieces are in order.

Dangling the Carrot

The interview process goes well for the freelancer. However, the project never gets off the ground because the client is unprepared.  They didn’t fully realize the project’s scope until after meeting the freelancer.

The project lags for a while.  The client tries to be friendly.  They promise to hook the freelancer up sometime soon.  After a few weeks, the freelancer realizes the hard way, nothing will ever happen.

Profit Sharing

An independent freelancer is working at a live event.  They’re approached by a second freelancer who’s organizing a group of like-minded workers. The organizer proposes a partnership, saying they’re building a freelance co-op.  Everyone works together on larger projects to make more money for the group. Good deal, right?

After some time, it becomes clear that the organizer of the group is the least skilled, does the least amount of work, and is the only one to make money. Everyone else in the group gets empty promises while toiling in the shadows.  Anyone who questions the situation gets hostility from the organizer for not wanting to contribute to the cause.

Paying for Expenses

A freelancer is on the road for a project. The client doesn’t pay any per diem or expenses. The freelancer agreed to the job because the final pay is good.

The client told the freelancer everything would be all set. All they need to do is call the contact person after arriving at the airport. Rides and a hotel will be set up by the contact. The freelancer arrives at the airport and calls the contact, who’s upset and in a rage.

Earlier that day, the contact had a dispute with the client and decided to quit. The freelancer is now forced to pay for added expenses with money earned from the previous job. The company promises to reimburse expenses, but the freelancer needs their own money to begin the project.

Some clients think that only paying the freelancer’s expenses is enough. Because the company is new, the freelancer is expected to work for gas money and a sandwich.

Changing Terms

The client and freelancer agree on a contract before work begins. The client changes their mind about the project after seeing the freelancer’s skills and adds more work. The client expects extra work because they don’t think it’s that hard.

When the freelancer refuses to do non-contracted extra free work, the client becomes upset and may cancel the project.


Somewhere toward the middle or end of a project, the client decides to disappear. Like a ghost, never seen or heard from again. At this point, the freelancer has delivered most of the work. Enough for the company’s less expensive in-house staff to complete the project. The freelancer will be without pay.


The client claims to be well connected in the industry. They tell the freelancer this project will get them more exposure, all the big shots will see it.

The big shots don’t care and will never bother to look. In the end, the client gets fame for an awesome project and the freelancer gets nothing.

Passion Project

A client thinks the freelancer will want to work for free because they have fun job, something the freelancer is passionate about. If the freelancer ever asks for pay, the client will get offended and try to make the freelancer feel bad.


A social media influencer holds an online contest. Whoever submits the most excellent design wins a t-shirt. Many people submit designs, allowing the influencer to cherry pick their favorites. They can choose from many designs, for only the cost of a t-shirt. Meanwhile, one designer wins a shirt and the rest get nothing.

Freelance Websites

Freelancers have to pay to play. Nothing is free on freelance websites. Websites are a business that need to cover costs and make money. How much they charge freelancers and clients depends on the platform.

There’s many online freelance websites, but life for new freelancers can be challenging. Applying for jobs requires paid credits or a monthly membership, and those costs add up.

If clients don’t see feedback on a freelancer’s profile, their proposals will likely be ignored. It takes a lot of diligence and luck for new freelancers to stand out from the crowd.

Some freelance websites corral new workers into paid monthly memberships. Additionally, only freelancers who complete various skills tests are eligible to apply for jobs. These tests cost money. Struggling freelancers may not have money to spend on tests, membership fees and extra credits.

Many freelancers on these websites come from areas with low living costs. It’s hard for someone in Southern California to compete with proposals for $2 per hour. The cost of living is completely different, but it’s the same job. The range of project bids varies. Cheap prices give clients the sense that they can demand lots of freelance work for pennies.

Freelance websites can help build portfolios. Overcoming the initial challenges of no clients and low pay can be tough. These websites may include scam jobs. Freelancers and clients should be careful.

Freelance Isn’t Free Act

The Freelance Isn’t Free Act was enacted in New York City in 2017.  It helps protect freelancers from shady business practices.

The law establishes and enhances protections for freelance workers, specifically the right to:
• A written contract
• Timely and full payment
• Protection from retaliation

It’s a step in the right direction. Acts like this will help freelancers get the pay they deserve.

The Upside to Freelance

There’s not much of a story when freelance jobs go well. Everything is correct. Pay comes when expected, work is delivered on time, and people are considerate of each other.

Freelancers get the opportunity to do what they love while living on their own terms. Clients have the flexibility of hiring talent on a per-project basis.

There’s ups and downs to every project, and they’re all different. Freelancers may choose to work for little or no pay in certain situations. Maybe a specific project can advance a freelancer’s career? Situations vary. People should be aware of anyone trying to take advantage of their craft.

Bakers don’t give away free donuts. Freelancers don’t give away free work.

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