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LD On The DL: Has The Rate Changed In 10 Years?

During the spring I wanted to conduct a survey of New York freelancers’ pay. I wanted to tell a story about how union and non-union rates have changed over the past ten years, the same length of time I have lived and worked in New York City. I opened a Survey Monkey account to help me collect the data. I needed more options than the free version allowed, so using my own money I signed up for a paid account. It took me several days to get acclimated to the interface. Live Design granted me permission to use their name, apparently legal had to be consulted. I designed and tweaked the questions, then tested the survey with several individuals to make sure those directions were clear. After some further re-tweaking, I broadcasted my intentions to the world. Through Twitter, Facebook, and various mailing lists friends allowed me access to, I asked, begged, and cajoled everyone to take part. Eagerly, I awaited the raw data to populate my spreadsheet. I felt deeply this particular post would be amazing and most insightful, I just knew it. Could a staff writing position at The New Yorker be too far behind? Soon I’d be sipping tea with Malcom Gladwell, while discussing my next book on how sexual harassment and blatant homophobia -- thoroughly sanctioned in the corporate world -- still readily act as a bonding mechanism among crew members in many areas of the entertainment industry. Gladwell would heartily approve of my erudite observations and clean, acerbic writing style. As days ... then weeks ... then months passed it became clear no staff writing position for me was imminent. I built it, but nobody came. Gladwell and I were never going to have tea. Only two people filled out the survey. One did so incorrectly.

My big goal was to compare and contrast hourly rates over a period of years, which meant I had to standardize other variables which affect our world to arrive at an honest answer. I tried to allow for things like different areas of the industry, OT policies, meal penalties, call minimums, 1099 versus W2 pay, and union versus non-union -- all of which greatly affect the global hourly rate. I wanted people to input their rates by company by year (while also delineating the aforementioned variables of the particular gig) so I could track changes over time and compare like gigs to like gigs.

Even now it sounds like a plausible endeavor. So why did it fail? To find out I did what all Lighting Designers who pretend to be Investigative Researchers do: I asked people at work. A lot of people at work.

I took part in a lot of conversations about hourly rates these past few months. The real “ah-ha” moment came between tapings on a warm, late spring afternoon. I joined some of the crew outside for a smoke break. After asking my standard question, what I heard surprised me.

After a long drag on his cigarette, one electrician said, “Well ... to answer your question about my rate, no, it hasn’t changed in a decade. But, I don’t think like that. I can tell you I’m doing better this year than last.” The other immediately added, “Exactly. I’ve earned in two quarters this year as much as I made all last year.” It turns out my survey wasn’t just ineptly put together. I asked the entirely wrong question.

I would have liked having data to help bolster my belief I think all of us share. Without any actual data, anecdotal evidence will have to do, and the anecdotal evidence points to a specific answer. How have freelance electrician rates in New York changed over the past decade? The answer is always the same: They haven’t. If non-union, the rate across most sectors of the industry is largely unchanged from the early 2000s. If union, the rate, generally, has ticked up some small amount year over year.

So, what’s going on? How can anybody be, “... doing better,” a belief many freelancers held, when rates have remained unchanged for over ten years? I suspect several things are occurring simultaneously.

One, freelancers are confusing working more with doing better. If I work 8 hours a day, for 3 days a week, for 50 weeks a year, for an average of $20/hour, I make $24,000 that year. If I work an extra day every other week (so for 25 weeks I work 4 days per week), my yearly income jumps to $28,000. That’s a 15% raise, or an extra $333 per month. Not too shabby! I understand how that can look like progress, and in some sense it is, but when framed in a long view it does not look like progress at all. Working more for more money is how things are supposed to work. Furthermore a 15% raise every year is unsustainable because of physical limits as to how much one can work.

I also think freelancers confuse working for higher rates with doing better. When I first began freelancing I worked for a decor lighting company for $18/hour. Then, I started freelancing for another company for $30/hour. Let’s do the math. If I worked for the decor lighting company for 3 days a week, for 50 weeks, at $18/hour my yearly income would be $21,600 (which is close to what I actually made my first year in New York, a whopping $19,780 *before* taxes). Working for the other company the same amount of time but at the higher rate, my yearly income jumps to $36,000 ... a 40% increase! That certainly does feel like, “... doing better,” but, again, your frame of reference can only be the previous year or years. Long term a 40% increase in annual income -- not to mention earning $36,000 in New York City -- is unsustainable.

Lastly, banking a lot of money in a short period of time must -- psychologically -- make people feel they are, “... doing better.” Seeing $8,000 in the bank after a busy period feels really good. Depositing several checks feel really good. I certainly remember that delicious ping of validation during my freelancing days. I felt like a rockstar with all that money. Having all that cash proved my professional exceptionalism. Now that I’m older I realize I wasn’t exceptional at all. I just conveniently ignored half the balance sheet and forgot how to average.

My survey never had a chance. I asked the wrong questions of a population not super-interested in hearing what should probably be said: Many freelancers’ definition of, “... doing better,” is so narrowly defined it leaves out too much as to be a practical world-view for any length of time. This mindset stops working eventually. What’s omitted are a multitude of very important things for a middle class existence. Things like health care, insurances, consumer goods, and rent don’t stay flat even if our earnings do. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) measures changes to goods and service typically purchased by households. Since 1980 the CPI has decisively moved in one direction: up. Everything else is getting more expensive, which bodes ill for those on what is arguably a fixed (even if it appears otherwise) income. While an individual may do better or worse as compared to another individual, or even from year to year, if pay rates are truly flat it is mathematically impossible for freelancers as a group to be gaining any ground economically. The flood waters are rising. The freelancers earning more just sit on slightly higher ground and may not yet notice the entire block slowly submerging.

The big takeaway here is that the freelance electrician career path here in New York is increasingly becoming untenable for any serious length of time. Especially if you’re non-union. Most do one of three things: get into a union or find full-time work, move up the ladder and become, for example, a moving light programer, or get out altogether. Rates won’t improve until supply dwindles and demand increases, which isn’t going to happen as long as university theater departments continually pump in fresh meat and the economy remains anemic.

Joining a union or finding full time employment have drawbacks. I asked many union stagehands about their rate over the past ten years, too. It has moved little, but it has moved. With either path you often don’t have the option of saying, “No, thanks, I’d rather not work today.” The rate or salary is typically lower, too. However, when I think about union membership or full-time employment, the absolute best, highest rate does not come to mind. Access to affordable health care and retirement options do.

Their importance cannot be understated, and it’s part of what’s overlooked when I hear freelancers say, “I’m doing better.” Full time employees, like myself, have access to more pre-tax retirement vehicles than non-union freelancers. My employer provides a 401K and contributes a certain percentage per year. When I am eligible I will allocate funds and not be taxed on them, which when you live in Manhattan, rent, and have no children amounts to a significant savings. When I work on a Local 1 contract, the client pays into my annuity. Should I become a full member of Local 1, I then have access to their pension after a number of years if I so choose. Unions or full-time employment aren’t perfect, but they beat working till you die.

One could also move up the ladder. Many become a freelance moving light programer, crew chief, head rigger, or something else generally more specialized. The rate typically increases on a per hour basis, however I suspect their rates also haven’t moved much in a decade. Many of the same concerns still apply. They just get deferred.

Or, one could quit. At some point people want things like health care, documented income, access to retirement plans, and a job that provides a middle class life. Increasingly, people see (and I think correctly so) those things aren’t possible in New York in this profession. They leave, burned and bitter. I guess we are who remain -- burned, bitter, but employed.

It was my hope to bring this perspective forward with charts and line graphs. Instead, I can only provide a vague picture of how industry rates have performed through unscientific methods like asking employers and employees how and how much they get paid. I focused on electricians because I know more electricians than anybody else, but I suspect many other areas face similar issues. I still think the story of New York freelancers needs to be honestly told. Young workers flood into this area and industry with expectations and definitions of success that are, at best, irresponsible. Old workers adopt protectionist attitudes and tenaciously hoard their posts and treasure. That, too, is equally unsustainable for the larger system. Labor is not some esoteric group of individuals functioning in complete isolation. It’s us - you and me. We sink or swim together, and it’s time all of us take a look at the rising water.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Designer and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.

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