Indie Film Freelancers Call on Feds for ‘Imperative’ Government Relief

More than 80% of Freelancers Union members reported losing thousands of dollars in wages due to COVID-19

Last Updated: April 22, 2020 @ 3:12 PM

The Freelancers Union and a coalition of 25 independent film and media groups are calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and congressional members across the country to support its members by ensuring that any replenishment to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) includes stipulations that contracted film workers in need will qualify for funding, Rafael Espinal, President of Freelancers Union, announced on Tuesday.

In addition to the Freelancers Union president and executive director, Rafael Espinal, signatories to the letter included Film Independent president Josh Welsh, International Documentary Association executive director Simon Kilmurry, Kartemquin Films executive director Jolene Pinder, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam, Tribeca Films Institute executive director Amy Hobbs, the Documentary Producers Alliance and the Producers Guild of America.

Freelancers were allowed to apply for PPP loans starting Friday, April 10, one week after applications opened to small businesses, offering a window of only four business days before the Small Business Administration (SBA) announced that they were closing applications due to lack of funding.

The signatories as a group represent and support freelancers in independent media who have been particularly hard hit. More than 80% of freelancers surveyed by Freelancers Union reported that they had already lost thousands of dollars in wages because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, with no reprieve for paying ongoing business expenses.

The PPP has the potential to offer a critical financial lifeline to America’s freelance and self-employed workers by providing forgivable loans to cover payroll and business expenses. Unfortunately, with insufficient federal funds allocated and rules set up to favor larger businesses, freelancers have not been able to gain access to this essential funding.

“A significant number of independent media makers and documentary filmmakers operate as freelancers,” said Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association in a statement. “We have heard from thousands of those makers that their businesses have been shut down and that they have been shut out of the initial round of PPP. It is imperative that any new federal aid under PPP prioritize freelancers.”

“I have heard from freelancers across the country who have lost gigs due to COVID-19,”Espinal added.”They’re unsure of how they will be able to pay the bills and the majority have yet to receive any of the relief created in the CARES ACT. We need to ensure that the Paycheck Protection Program includes the millions of independent workers that drive our cities and country forward.”

Actions the coalition is urging congress to take include:

  1. Earmark funding specifically for self-employed and independent contractors, who are underbanked and underserved by government relief programs
  2. Set aside and guarantee 50% of loans for minority sole proprietors
  3. Require SBA lenders to process all applications, banning rules that require existing relationships with lending institutions
  4. Open the next round of funding first to independent workers and self-employed individuals
  5. Require SBA to publish data on the size of businesses receiving loans, including a breakout of loans awarded to self-employed and independent contractors

57 million freelancers make up the country’s workforce and contribute an estimated $1 trillion to its GDP.

See the letter in full below:

April 21, 2020

Letter to Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell
CC: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Re: Replenishing PPP funds to support self-employed workers impacted by COVID-19 pandemic

Today we are facing the greatest crisis to the freelance workforce in modern history. Freelancers — including self-employed, sole proprietors, and other independent workers — comprise over 57 million of America’s workforce and contribute an estimated $1 trillion to its GDP. Freelancers are among the hardest hit by COVID-19 closures.

The signatories as a group represent and support freelancers in independent media who have been particularly hard hit, even as their work is so vital. Freelancers Union found that more than 80% of the freelancers surveyed reported that they had already lost thousands of dollars in wages because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, with no reprieve for paying ongoing business expenses.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has the potential to offer a critical financial lifeline to America’s freelance and self-employed workers by providing forgivable loans to cover payroll and business expenses. Unfortunately, with insufficient federal funds allocated and rules set up to favor larger businesses, freelancers have not been able to gain access to this essential funding.

Freelancers were allowed to apply for PPP loans starting Friday, April 10, one week after applications opened to small businesses, offering a window of only four business days before the SBA announced that they were closing applications because funds were exhausted. During this time, freelancers struggled to connect with banks who were already overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of loans from larger business applicants. Freelancers without dedicated business banking accounts were unable to find reputable lenders, as the majority of SBA-approved lenders were only processing loans for their existing business customers. Further, freelancers who are minorities or live in rural areas faced additional barriers to access. Finally, on Tuesday night, the SBA issued new rules for freelance applicants requiring the completion of a 2019 Form 1040, Schedule C, which many freelancers have not yet completed due to the extension of the IRS’ filing deadline.

These measures have effectively shut freelancers out of PPP loans. We need to do more.

We urge the federal government to replenish SBA funding for PPP loans and institute measures to ensure that freelancers in film and media are able to access funding. Specifically:

  1. Earmark funding specifically for self-employed and independent contractors, who are
    underbanked and underserved by government relief programs
  2.  Set aside and guarantee 50% of loans for minority sole proprietors
  3. Require SBA lenders to process all applications, banning rules that require existing
    relationships with lending institutions
  4. Open the next round of funding first to independent workers and self-employed
    individuals
  5. Require SBA to publish data on the size of the businesses receiving loans, including a
    breakout of loans awarded to self-employed and independent contractors

Freelancers in media are being left out of critical government relief efforts. We must expeditiously put forward policies that include the millions of these independent workers that drive our cities and country forward.

Rafael Espinal
President and Executive Director, Freelancers Union

Wendy Levy
Executive Director, The Alliance for Media Arts and Culture

Justine Nagan
Executive Director, American Documentary

Leo Chaing, Grace Lee
Co-founders, A-Doc

Ken Ikeda
CEO, Association of Independents in Radio

Paula Smith Arrigoni
Executive Director, Bay Area Video Coalition

Brown Girls Doc Mafia

Bonni Cohen, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, Megan Gelstein
Catapult Film Fund

Stephen Gong
Executive Director, Center for Asian American Media

Documentary Producers Alliance

Maxyne Franklin,
Director, Doc Society

Orly Ravid
Founder / Co-Executive Director, The Film Collaborative

Josh Welsh
President, Film Independent

Marcia Smith
President, Firelight Media

FWD-Doc (Documentary Filmmakers with Disabilities)

Simon Kilmurry
Executive Director, International Documentary Association

Jolene Pinder
Executive Director, Kartemquin Films

Producers Guild of America

Lucy Mukerjee, Themba Bhebhe, Paul Struthers, Hussain Currimbhoy
Co-Founders, Programmers of Colour Collective

Jessica Devaney
Co-founder, Queer Producers Network

Jill Tidman
Executive Director, Redford Center

Keri Putnam
Executive Director, Sundance Institute

Shirley Alfaro
Executive Director, Third Coast International Audio Festival

Amy Hobby
Executive Director, Tribeca Film Institute

Debra Zimmerman
Executive Director, Women Make Movies

Bryn Mooser
CEO, XTR Films