An Overview of the Increased Need for Education, Advocacy, and Sustainability for Independent Contractors in the Arts after the Pandemic.
Edith Skeard for the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
In Saskatchewan, independent contractors play a critical role in a healthy creative ecology; they meet task-specific gaps in under-funded organizations while bringing their diverse experience to multiple creative spaces. However, flat-lined provincial budgets mean our sector can provide little flexibility in pay rates for contractors and limited positions for employees.
Additionally, as the pandemic has shown, the creative sector exists in a state of relative precarity which disproportionately affects those who work in a contract-based capacity. These factors force independent contractors to work in a state of sustained tension. This series of articles is intended to be an educational resource for independent contractors and a call to action to support the least secure labourers in our sector.
From the small survey I published, it is clear that the pandemic profoundly affected other contract-based workers in Saskatchewan. All respondents reported a loss of contract income, and because contractors lack the same safety nets as employees, many reported that they continue to be affected by labour shortages. After looking at the data and analyzing my own experience as a contractor in Saskatchewan, I have identified three main areas for this article series to address:
- Contractors need a working definition of the difference between what counts as contracted labour and what should count as traditional employment.
- There is a lack of resources and tools for contractors to self-advocate, create contracts, find recourse in an exploitative situation, or receive support in an emergency.
- There needs to be more advocacy from within the creative ecology around the precarity of contract employment and the continued impact of the pandemic.
This series of articles explores these concerns and offers meaningful ways to advocate for and provide resources to arts workers who continue to deliver high-quality arts and cultural programming and inter-organizational skill sharing within our province.
Part 1 – How Contractors Operate in Saskatchewan’s Creative Ecology.
The first part of this series seeks to understand the distinction between an independent contractor and an employee to empower labourers to self-advocate, a topic which I continue to learn the nuances of day by day. As an independent contractor and intermittent employee in the arts for almost ten years, the differentiation between these roles often needs to be clearer. In many cases, I should have been an employee; at the same time, I also recognize that a lack of stable funding can force ambiguity in our working relationships. In this article, I hope to show that contract employees ultimately bear the burden of sector insecurity – as evidenced by the pandemic. As such, it is critical that organizations create equitable, responsible, and dynamic working environments by clearly defining roles and statuses for everyone they work with.
Knowing the difference between independent contractors and employees is essential if we are dedicated to engaging in fair and equitable working environments. While hiring a contractor is often a necessity borne out of unstable funding, hiring contractors as part-time employees can lead to exploitation and a lack of the necessary benefits afforded to employees.
When interviewed, over half of our survey respondents identified that they believed they should have been hired as an employee instead of a contractor. In a recent publication, the Workers’ Action Centre called attention to the issue of contracted labour, stating that labourers’ misclassification results in exploitation, as contractors aren’t protected like traditional employees. For example, a worker in this situation would lack access to severance pay, adequate notice of lay-offs, and EI benefits. Additionally, they would be unlikely to have the same loss of income insurance in place that an independent contractor in another sector would. All the while, the organization would remain protected.
Independent contractors should have additional resources such as legal contracts, which protect them from a volatile working relationship, insurance which protects them from liability, and access to loans and resources to help them manage expenses. In contrast, employees are protected from volatile working arrangements by provincial Employment Standards legislation. For many independent contractors within the arts, the blurred distinction can cause confusion around how to access services and understand themselves as a business. While working as a contractor, I was often willing to exist in this liminal space because I felt it was the way to gain experience and develop skills that would lead to more stable positions. If this is true of others in Saskatchewan, it is clear that the creative sector contains an imbalance of power and resources – setting up new graduates and artists for inequity and economic instability.
The Workers’ Action Centre warns that “[e]mployment status (whether we are employees or independent contractors) directly affects our entitlement to basic rights such as minimum wage, overtime pay, health & safety protections, job-protected leaves, human rights and the right to bargain collectively and join a union.” Knowing the difference is a key step in avoiding labour exploitation in our sector – especially as it may be slow to recover from the fallout of the pandemic.
So what is an independent contractor? They are contracted to complete specific work in a designated timeline. It is imperative to note that contracted employees always determine the scope and cost of their labour. Independent contractors operate as a small business (sole proprietorship). Unlike a traditional employee-employer relationship, they operate as a peer, in an equal power capacity for whomever they work with. When you are an independent contractor,
- You are responsible for invoicing, sending proposals, and fulfilling contracts
- You control how your work is done.
- You may hire other people to assist in the work, and you, not the company or organization, direct their work.
- You are responsible for paying into your own EI and CPP benefits and paying GST and PST on your income.
- You receive deductions for travel, tools, and other expenses.
- You can freely negotiate your pay, scope of work, and when your work has to be done.
- You own and are responsible for some or all of the tools or equipment you use to work.
- You take the profit or loss from the work. If there is a profit, you receive it, and if there is a loss – then you are responsible for the loss.
- You are not part of the business or organization you are hired by. You can choose who you work for and work for different companies or organizations simultaneously.
An employee is inherently subordinate to the employer, and this relationship is governed by a set of employment standards that guarantees the employee’s rights. You are considered an employee if multiple of the following parameters apply to your working situation:
- You received specific training from the company or organization.
- The company or organization supervises and manages your work.
- You do not have control over how to complete the work, the number of hours worked, the ability to renegotiate your contract as needed, or the pay rate for your services.
- You were not required to provide a GST number, invoice for services, or offer a proposal for the work needed.
- You work with tools or equipment that the company or organization gives you.
- Your work lacks a set duration and is consistent over a long period of time.
- Your work is clearly part of the necessary daily operations of the business or organization.
Within the arts, the distinction between employee and contractor can become blurred. We must continue education around working conditions in our sector and advocate for funding to properly support the employment needs of vital organizations. The provincial non-profit sector employed over 77,000 individuals in 2018, according to Saskatchewan Non-Profits, 13% (~10,000 people) of which were employed in the Arts and Culture sector. In addition, 25% of the people employed in the cultural sector in Saskatchewan are self-employed. This is a significant margin of the sector, and advocating for resources and education should be a priority for all creative organizations.
It is important to understand the distinction between these two roles, regardless of how your employer designates your position; as the Workers’ Action Centre poignantly states, “your employer cannot simply change your employment status by paying you like an independent contractor.“ As organizations, it is also critical that you understand these distinctions to avoid punitive actions by the Canada Revenue Agency. When organizations hire an independent contractor, they should know the parameters of that working relationship in order to facilitate a healthy and equitable working relationship.
I hope that understanding the difference between an independent contractor and an employee removes the risk of inequity, as each role contains specific roads for managing harm or volatility. By developing organizational practices for hiring and what is required by each type of employee and continuing to advocate for our financial needs to be met, we can support our sector’s most insecure workers in the event of additional emergencies and ongoing inequities. In the coming articles, we will look more closely at contracted labour precarity and the need for a united voice for income alternatives and employment safety nets for the creative sector.
Edith Skeard (they/them) is a queer artist working in multiple mediums including sound, drawing, performance, and installation. They received their BFA in Visual Art with distinction and BAhons in Philosophy at the University of Regina. They now live and work in Saskatoon, SK located within Treaty 6, the traditional territories of the Cree, Dene, Nakota, Saulteaux, and Ojibwe, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
Edith can also be heard on SAA’s podcast Arts Everywhere and as part of our op-ed series Living the Arts