Freelancing comes with a lot of perks. You have the freedom to make your own schedule, be your own boss and skip the morning commute. 

More and more Americans are leaving the 9-5 to work for themselves. But for this large wave of independent contractors, certain workplace benefits and protections are out of reach.

Laws of the past, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, perhaps didn’t imagine a future world that would be filled with so many freelancers.

Many freelancers don’t receive the same kind of workplace benefits that full-time employees do. This includes benefits like health insurance coverage, retirement plans and pensions.

There’s also no minimum wage requirement for contracted workers, and no overtime rules.

On top of all that, there’s very little protection for independent contractors when it comes to sexual harassment and other workplace civil rights, like gender or racial discrimination.

Although you may not have the same rights as a full-time employee, you do maintain certain workplace rights as a freelancer.

These include the right to control your work schedule, copyrights and any other rights stipulated in your contracts.

Learn which workplace laws don’t apply to freelancers, and what rights you do have as an independent contractor.

Are You an Independent Contractor?

The government defines an independent contractor as a person or business who does work for a client under contract or verbal agreement, but is not regularly employed by the client.

An independent contractor has the right to control his/her work, including when, how, and where the work is done.

The client does not pay the same level of taxes (including Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes) for an independent contractor as they do for a traditional employee.

An employer may label you as a contractor to benefit from the labor cost savings. But it’s possible that even though you’re considered to be a contractor, you should be an actual employee.

The Department of Labor calls this “misclassification.” Some businesses deliberately misclassify their employees as contract workers to avoid paying associated taxes.

The Department of Labor may consider you an employee if:

  • Your work is an essential part of the employer’s business
  • The employer requires you to be at a specific workplace at specific times they set
  • The employer controls how you’re paid

For more information on misclassification and to report potential cases, visit Colorado’s Department of Labor & Employment website.

Workplace Laws that Don’t Protect Freelancers

Understanding where your rights as a freelancer end are important to protecting yourself and your business. Here are the workplace laws and regulations that don’t protect independent contractors:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations and more.

Under the ADA, an employer can’t refuse to hire someone or fire them based on a disability.

The company must also provide accommodations for disabled people, such as wheelchair-accessible ramps, elevators, and handicap restroom facilities.

The ADA does not apply to independent contractors. That means a client can discriminate against you for your disability, or refuse to provide appropriate accommodation for your disability, and there’s not much you can do about it.

Age Discrimination Employment Act

Similarly to the ADA, the Age Discrimination Employment Act prohibits age discrimination in the workplace.

For example, if you have reason to believe that a client chose someone else’s proposal over yours, or tries to take advantage of your services without paying simply because of your age, you couldn’t seek legal help for this discrimination as a freelancer.

Health & Safety Regulations

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was established to provide safety protections for workers.

This relates to unsanitary workplace settings, dangerous chemicals, excessive noise and more.

The act does not have a rule covering independent contractors. So, for example, if you had to help design and build something for a client, and you were hurt, they would not be held responsible.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, color, race, religion or national origin.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission makes it clear that independent contractors are not protected by these anti-discrimination laws.

And this is a problem that is affecting freelancers across the country. NPR recently reported a story about a woman who was sexually harassed by her manager.

She ended up quitting her job because there was no one to report her manager to. And as a freelancer, she had no recourse to seek damages in a court of law.

What Rights Do You Have as a Contractor?

So what laws do protect you as a freelancer? Much of your protection as a contract worker depends on where you live in the US.

Although there is no federal law regarding sexual harassment and discrimination against independent contractors, some states and cities do offer these protections.

State Laws that Protect Freelancers

California, Pennsylvania, Washington state, and New York City have all extended some worker protections to freelancers.

In 2017, New York City enacted the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” which gives independent contractors “the right to a written contract, timely and full payment, and protection from retaliation.” This law helps to protect freelancers from harassment or discrimination.

In 2000, California expanded its Fair Employment and Housing Act to include contractors as a protected class of worker. This means contractors have protection from discrimination and harassment.

Federal Laws that Protect Freelancers

There are also federal laws that protect freelancers and contract workers, from your workflow to ownership of work

Control of Work

As a freelancer, you get to enjoy autonomy and independence in your workflow. It’s your legal right to have complete control over how, when, and where you fulfill your work.

You also have the right set your own pay with each client, and can even sub-contract out parts of your work.

You are your own business as a freelancer. Clients must respect this important right by not imposing restrictions on how you do your work.

Ownership of Work

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, you own the rights to all of the products you create as a freelancer — unless otherwise stipulated by a contractual agreement between you and your client.

Although these laws can protect what you create for a client, it’s up to you to protect your brand and ideas with a detailed contractor.

Contractual Rights: Protect Yourself

It’s important for freelancers to never agree to a new gig without a detailed contract. Federal laws may not give you automatic protections as a freelancer, but you can outline whatever rights you want in your contract.

Here are some important you should make sure you contract covers:

If you aren’t sure of your state’s freelancing rights, whether you should be classified as an employee or independent contractor, or what the fine print in a contract means, seek the advice of an attorney.

You may not have all the same rights as a traditional employee under federal laws. But there are still options for legal recourse to seek justice and damages for mistreatment.

From signing a contract to dealing with a client’s legal team, seeking the advice of a lawyer can help you protect you and your career as a freelancer.

Before you sign a contract for anything, learn what to look for in any new contract >