Freelance filmmakers, media groups lobby for federal aid reserved for small businesses

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A coalition of independent film and media groups is petitioning the federal government to provide emergency financial relief for freelance workers who may be suffering substantial income losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The group, led by the Freelancers Union, issued a letter Tuesday addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin asking them to reserve funds from federal relief programs for freelancers.

“Today we are facing the greatest crisis to the freelance workforce in modern history,” the letter said. “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.”

Many films produced for public television stations are made by freelance filmmakers who say they need federal aid to stay afloat, said Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association. The letter was endorsed by the IDA and more than 20 organizations including the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca Film Institute, the Association of Independents in Radio and American Documentary, producer of public TV’s POV.

The coalition argued that the CARES Act stimulus package signed by President Trump March 27 failed to adequately protect freelancers because it included stipulations that freelancers could only start applying for Paycheck Protection Program loans April 10, a week after applications opened to small businesses. That offered “a window of only four business days” before the Small Business Administration announced that it was closing applications, the letter said.

The Freelancers Union cited a self-reported survey that found that 80% of freelancers had already lost “thousands of dollars in wages because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, with no reprieve for paying ongoing business expenses.”

The Senate approved a deal Tuesday to replenish funds meant to increase coronavirus testing and aid hospitals and small businesses. Lawmakers discussed the deal for two weeks as funds reserved for small businesses approved in the previous $2.2 trillion stimulus package drained to zero.

The House is expected to approve the bill Thursday. President Trump has indicated that he will sign it into law.

The new deal proposes more than $300 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program through the Small Business Administration, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses if most of the funds are used to retain employees. 

Kilmurry, a former EP of POV, said in an interview that in the past 10 days, more than 2,600 filmmakers joined the organization’s online seminars on PPP to learn how to apply for relief once more federal funds become available.

“We often talk about support for small businesses, but we forget freelancers,” Kilmurry said, adding that freelance filmmakers do important work for American media and culture. “This is an unprecedented economic situation and it’s not going to go away any time soon.”

Rafael Espinal, president of the Freelancers Union, said the PPP so far has been “a disaster” because it favored larger businesses and left freelancers with few choices for financial support. He said he hopes newly approved funds are a step in the right direction, adding that the SBA should publish data on the sizes of businesses receiving loans to track how many self-employed and independent contractors receive help.

Also on the freelancers’ wishlist are relief for minority freelancers, a ban on rules that require existing relationships with lending institutions, and a request to have first dibs at the next round of funding over larger businesses with more resources, according to the coalition’s letter.

Espinal, a former New York City council member, said he connected with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office to lobby on behalf of freelancers before the bill was approved by the Senate Tuesday. He was also in touch with the offices of legislators including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when the $2.2 trillion bill was approved last month.

“[Schumer’s office] assured us that they were listening to our concerns and that they were going to do everything in their power to include some of our points, but this is just the beginning of our campaign,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic. There is the expectation that Congress will come back to talk about a third and fourth round of stimulus funds, and we’ll make sure we attack that conversation the same way we did this time around.”

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