Self-employed people are battling with cancellations and increasing expenses, without the cushion of company coffers. It was bad before but Omicron has just made everything worse

It’s been a tricky time for Auckland professional photographer Sophie Miya-Smith. Hers is an unstable job at the best of times, and now she’s among the myriad self-employed workers who have had their work seriously disrupted by the Omicron outbreak.

It’s not for lack of talent or experience. The 25-year-old has an impressive resumé. So far, the names she’s worked with include Vogue Italia, Netflix, UberEats, and Air New Zealand.

Her leap into freelancing was made In November 2020, after she was laid off from her in-house role at a brand agency – because of Covid. 

After returning from overseas at the start of this year, she found her booking calendar filled up through January, but this pipeline was abruptly cut to a drip when the Omicron outbreak hit in February.

During one particularly bad week, five shoots got canned and she lost $5000 worth of work.

Miya-Smith recently bought a house, meaning she’s scraping by while paying the mortgage. For a few days she was able to get the Government’s Covid-19 Leave Support Scheme as she was a close contact.

But during one particularly bad week, five shoots got canned and she lost $5000 worth of work.

She doesn’t usually earn that much, but with bills to pay she didn’t say no to jobs that were passed on to her while other photographers were isolating.

“You can’t shoot because everyone’s suddenly a close contact. The make-up artists, designers, directors, and model can’t work. It’s a chain reaction,” she says.

“Even if a shoot has been pencilled in, it keeps being pushed out to an unknown date. You don’t know when it’s going to happen again. It’s just the nature of our work, there’s no stability there.”

Uber’s “minuscule” 40c fuel surcharge 

Sophie Miya-Smith says the increasing cost of fuel is among her growing expenses, and she’s not alone.

Anita Rosentreter​, spokesperson for First Union, says the country’s 7000 Uber drivers are feeling the pinch, especially because they were classed as independent contractors rather than employees.

As Newsroom reported last year, First and E tū unions are taking Uber to court with a claim that its drivers are entitled to the full protection of employment law and are not – as the company maintains – self-employed contractors.

First Union spokesperson Anita Rosentreter​, says contractors across the board are struggling. Photo: Supplied

Without employment status, drivers have to personally cover the cost of expenses, such as fuel and vehicle upkeep, without the company contributing. The case has yet to be heard.

Rosentreter says drivers already earn scant wages once their expenses are deducted, and the increasing price of fuel means even those in hybrid vehicles are finding they are earning less. 

Uber says it’s aware of the problems drivers are facing. Last week, the company rolled out a temporary 60-day fuel surcharge to help cushion the blow of rising fuel prices.

Passengers will be charged a per-kilometre surcharge which will work out at about 40 cents more on an average trip, Uber says. All of this fee will go to the driver.

But Rosentreter doesn’t think this will off-set the price of petrol.

“It’s minuscule, it won’t make that much difference for drivers who are already struggling and already earning on average less than the minimum wage,” she says.

Sole traders feeling worried

According to a survey of sole traders carried out by accounting software company Hnry, self-employed people have a less rosy outlook on the economy than six months ago.

The Sole Trader Pulse was conducted by Resolve Strategic, who polled 504 sole traders from 28 February to 5 March this year.

The survey found 15 percent believed the health of the economy is either ‘good’, or ‘very good’ right now, a slip from 19 percent six months ago.

Auckland appears to be the epicentre of the malaise, where 41 percent of sole traders rated the economic conditions as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. This compares with 30 percent of those in Wellington, and 37 percent in Canterbury who said the same thing.

Hnry chief executive James Fuller says the company’s surveys show self-employed people feel good about running their own business. Photo: Supplied

Despite this, the survey found sole traders reporting higher levels of personal satisfaction from running their own business, with more than 55 percent saying they felt ‘good’ or ‘very good’ about being the boss.

James Fuller, chief executive of Hnry, says despite some difficult economic conditions they’ve had to face, self-employed people are enjoying being an independent earner.

Meanwhile, in addition to the Covid Support Payment and the Small Business Cashflow Scheme, Inland Revenue is offering businesses hit by Covid the chance to pay their tax bill in instalments. There are even write-offs for companies facing serious hardship, according to the department’s website.  

Any businesses having difficulties paying tax should contact the department by logging into their myIR account, IRD says.

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