Working: Days are endless when you’re an independent contractor


Freelance political consultant Rina Shah often works long hours, seven days a week. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)
September 18, 2011

Rina Shah says she loves being able to chart her own course and set her own goals, and doesn’t mind working long hours, often seven days a week. She’s been on that work-every -day approach since February, when she founded her political consulting firm Rilax Strategies.

Jaclyn Schiff just started full-time freelancing as a journalist and social media consultant in May. She hopes to pare her schedule of 60-plus hours a week, though she likes the latitude of working into the night. “As daylight goes and things get dark, I get more creative,” she said.

Welcome to the world of independent contractors and freelancers, where weekends and evenings don’t necessarily bring breaks from assignments.

Shah worked much of Labor Day weekend, including a conference call and an interview with a reporter. She has served as director of communications for presidential candidate Fred Karger, an openly gay Republican, since February, and it has turned into a full-time job. When she started her company, she also was writing freelance op-ed and health care pieces as a second income source. She says she’s accustomed to “juggling multiple priorities … . It’s seven days a week unless something comes up” such as a girlfriend’s wedding or her mom’s birthday.

“On holidays, everyone else is looking forward to it. You think, ‘I need to be working,’ ” said Schiff, who took most of a long weekend to attend a wedding recently.

The top three motivators for becoming an independent contractor are the need for greater flexibility, a desire to earn more money and a decision to start one’s own business, according to a new online survey by MBO Partners working with Emergent Research. More than half of the 610 “independent workers”surveyed said they chose their career path, and two-thirds plan to continue in it. (Only one in five wants to seek a full-time job in coming years.) The survey has a 4 percent margin of error. MBO Partners helps contractors handle billing, health and other insurance and other business infrastructure needs.

About one in five employees around the Beltway works as an independent contractor or freelancer, according to the Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., which provides workforce data. Their total has grown 14 percent to 774,253 since 2005. Nationwide, 23 percent of all workers, or about 40.5 million people, are independent contractors, EMSI reports based on government data.

John J. Loyer has worked as an independent strategy and political consultant for years, mostly from his home in Arlington. “A regular work schedule is not something I can count on,” he said. Yet he likes the arrangement: “If you’re willing to sacrifice some nights and weekends, there’s an awful lot of freedom.”

He tries to manage clients carefully and has “fired clients” who were too high maintenance. Sometimes he passes those onto other consultants who have more time or greater willingness to deal with someone that demanding.

Schiff made the switch gradually, taking side jobs and clients for at least two years as she worked full-time at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She often had two to four clients to juggle, so when she switched to full-time contractor “in some ways it was kind of a relief. I just had more control over my schedule” after she left this spring, she said. Usually she creates the schedule and deadlines for many of her projects, except perhaps for her work as managing editor of a blog for Brazen Careerist, a site aimed at 20-somethings building their work lives.

She and Loyer agree freelancing requires self-discipline. “You have to adhere to self-imposed limits,” Schiff said. “No one else is going to be looking out for your time.”

She still has plenty of friends in the worlds of government, media and nonprofits. “I don’t know anyone who gets paid overtime. Now I get paid for the time I put in,” she said, since most clients pay her by the hour. That is a distinct advantage: “I’m still putting my heart and soul into it. I’m just getting paid.”

TIPS:

If you’re working all the time as a freelancer or independent consultant, here are some suggestions:

1. Pick one day a week that is reserved for your life. Then unplug for 12 hours and don’t check e-mail or voicemail.

2. Know your goals. Once you have a clear vision and goals, it’s easier to stay focused on them, said Rina Shah.

3. Develop a specific agreement on the scope of your work assignment. Then communicate it widely with everyone involved, suggests consultant John Loyer.

4. Work ahead, plan ahead so you can take vacation. Jaclyn Schiff plans to get ahead and work out some other arrangements for her trip in December to visit family in South Africa.

5. Hire an intern. They can handle some basics, and free up a little time. But they may also be time-consuming, so choose carefully.

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