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6 July 2020

Monday 13 July is the deadline to apply for the first SEISS payment. Applications for the second SEISS slice are due to open on Monday 17 August.

In the wake of the furlough scheme winding down...

Have there been mass lay-offs of freelances?

AS WE write, the furlough scheme, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) that pays 80 per cent of the wages of employees, is beginning to wind down. Employers will now have to start paying a higher proportion of the wages of those employees furloughed through the scheme. They can start to ease people into part-time work while retaining them on the CJRS. Support via this scheme will end completely on 31 October.

We're already seeing mass lay-offs of previously-furloughed employees as a result of management calculations of the effect of the scheme beginning to wind down. A grim example announced while we were subbing this piece is at Newsquest. As Chris Morley, Newsquest NUJ national coordinator, said: "Constant cuts will not help deliver the quality news publishers will need as they seek to re-orientate their businesses to build sustainable digital subscriptions to beat the cyclical downturns in advertising.".

But how will this affect freelances?

The NUJ's Freelance Office succeeded in persuading some companies to put their regular freelances paid through PAYE onto the CJRS scheme, earlier in the lockdown.

Will companies - as they often do instinctively when faced with a challenging environment (see IR-35 changes) - just lay off or just stop engaging their freelances, to preserve a core of staff? This happened to many of our members as we went into coronavirus lockdown. It is, sadly, likely that lay-offs will affect many more freelances as we come out of lockdown into economic uncertainty and as government financial support for companies tails off.

Or will the media corporations, as so often happens, soon realise the "need to produce content" column that wasn't included in their accounting spreadsheets means they will have to pick up the phone and get freelances in to do tasks that still need doing? Will some companies lay off staff instead and become more reliant on freelances as they wait to see what happens next?

The Workforce Confidence Index survey in mid-June suggested that "media and communications" was one of few areas where confidence in career outlooks was "slightly up", so this may translate into more workforce mobility and more freelance opportunities.

We've heard several cases of regular casual freelances whose contracts have been cancelled after many years' service getting payments in lieu of redundancy. In come cases it's much cheaper for a company to make such a payment than to find out whether those who are "workers" but not "employees" in the eyes of employment law are entitled to redundancy in the strict sense.

Imagine the surprise of these freelances when they get a call soon afterwards from the same company saying words to the effect of "Uh, can you come in next week? It turns out there's still a need to produce a weekly magazine that we hadn't factored in..."

Tell us about it...

How are you affected by the predicted wave of post-furlough lay-offs? If you are affected, make contact immediately with the Freelance Office for advice. Then drop the Freelance a line via email (editor@londonfreelance.org)to tell us what's happening, so we can get an idea of how best to target support to members and to help the NUJ's lobbying.

Apply for strictly freelance support

Freelances who are strictly self-employed (not paid via PAYE) have until Monday 13 July to apply for the first SEISS payment to cover income in self-employment lost to the Covid crisis. Applications for the second SEISS slice are due to open on Monday 17 August. This will cover June, July and August. You will be able to apply whether or not you applied for the first SEISS payment earlier. Details are here.

Oh dear, Universal Credit

Sadly, the Freelance expects a spike in Universal Credit (UC) applications by freelance members following the anticipated knock-on effects of the furlough scheme ending and the second and final SEISS payment ending in September.

We are encouraging the NUJ to acquire expertise in dealing with benefit claims, possibly in conjuction with the Federation of Entertainment Unions, of which the NUJ is a member. Watch this space for possible advice on UC. For now see our frequent updates on covid-era UC, with links, here.