(Photos courtesy of Rafael Espinal)

When Rafael Espinal abruptly resigned his post as City Council member in January, there were many questions among his Brooklyn constituents about the charismatic politician’s unexpected decision to take a job as head of the Freelancers Union. The change of career came at a peculiar time, as the coronavirus made its way to the US in a more severe way than anyone expected. But now Espinal finds himself on the frontlines of the fight, buried in Zoom calls, phone calls, Skype calls, and virtual town halls, doing what he can to support freelancers who are losing work as the coronavirus shutdown continues.

Rafael Espinal has dark hair, defining eyebrows, and a “man of the people” smile. We first met for lunch at Los Tacos in early March. When he arrived, he bumped forearms with me, and mentioned that he wished he could go back to shaking hands.  

Times have changed since that first interview. The state has since issued a stay-at-home mandate that has ended casual lunch meetings and brought the economy to a virtual standstill. Some 70 percent of freelancers have lost work due to the coronavirus, and 90 percent are projected to lose work moving forward in the crisis, according to a Freelancer Union survey. Espinal believes this is the time for the government to start recognizing freelancers as a growing part of the workforce. “Freelancers are always left as the last kind of priority,” he lamented.

Freelancing is an appealing career choice on a few levels. Unlike brick-and-mortar businesses, freelancers have no physical space to pay for except for their home or a co-working space. They can often work remotely, determine their own schedule, and be their own boss. For companies, hiring freelancers means getting a project completed by qualified workers, without paying their salary for a full year or more. 

“As a millennial,” Espinal said, “I always felt that freelancing was the future of work.”

But there are downsides, such as the fact that freelancers “don’t traditionally qualify for unemployment insurance,” Espinal noted. Many Freelance Union members are in the media and entertainment industry, and can’t work from home during the shutdown. At the end of March, Espinal and the Freelancers Union helped get the federal stimulus package to include $600 per week for freelancers, despite pushback by some Republican senators. The union’s next task was to solicit donations for freelancers in need. The Freelancers Relief Fund, which is aiming to raise $500,000, was promoted on the union’s website, through its social media platforms, and through word-of-mouth between members. Espinal said they’ve received many smaller donations. Two weeks ago, the union started “making small payouts” to members whose applications were deemed eligible based on how much of their income is from freelance work. Thousands have applied for funds, Espinal said. 

Though Espinal’s role with the Freelancers Union is relatively new, his passion for helping freelancers is not. Both of Espinal’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic. His mother, Ana, worked as a nurse, and his father, Rafael, was a “jack of all trades.” As Espinal grew up in Cypress Hills and attended school in East New York, his father worked many different jobs to support his six children. “Because of that, and because of [our parents’]  involvement in our lives,” he said, “we were able to be, you know, more success stories.”

While on the City Council, in 2017, Espinal helped pass the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which gives freelancers the right to a written contract, full payment, and protection from retaliation. His experience navigating local politics helped him jump into action as head of the Freelancers Union, since he knew who could “affect real change in legislative conversations.” The Freelancers Union has continued to push the federal government to include freelancers in its relief strategies. On April 21, the Paycheck Protection Program (forgivable loans provided by the Small Business Administration to help with payroll for eight weeks) was passed.

“We fought hard to ensure that a portion of that funding goes to supporting smaller lenders so that folks like freelancers are able to qualify,” Espinal said.

The union’s website includes a list of resources and information for freelancers, detailing what loans and aid they qualify for and urging them to reach out to their local representatives “to demand they include freelancers in their work!”

Among these resources, the website notes that in New York and other states, enrollment for health insurance (which can be purchased via the union itself) has reopened for a limited time, and that some insurers are covering the cost of COVID-19 testing and screening.  Espinal says they’ve been more focused on “advocacy at the federal and state level to ensure freelancers get the cash relief they need through the stimulus packages.”

Freelancers have been struggling not just with loss of work, but also with clients who have yet to pay for work they provided as far back as January.  Espinal said the union has been “a supportive voice” for members who “have anxiety or concern [about] pushing the employer to make their payments, because they’re afraid of losing that work in the future.” The union advises members on how to approach their employer for payment and how to use union resources and channels to contact the employers directly.

“So far, everyone who has reached out to the union has received compensation,” he said.

Right now, the focus is on the immediate issues: getting freelancers the money they need to sustain themselves and their business until the economy is running again. But Espinal thinks this points to a broader conversation around freelancers in the economy. “I always felt that artists, and people in media, and freelancers as a whole are often left out of the political conversation. And I saw my time on the council as an opportunity to help raise their voices.”

Espinal is best known to Bedford + Bowery readers for representing Bushwick and its surrounding neighborhoods while leading efforts to repeal the city’s cabaret law and to create an Office of Nightlife. (He also made an unsuccessful run for Public Advocate.) He misses his role in politics. “I get FOMO,” he admitted, recalling the days when he could hear about an issue and tell someone, “No problem, we’ll call the mayor right now.”

While there is some nostalgia, he knows he left for a reason. Many of his constituents anticipated that he would run for Brooklyn Borough President, and he considered it, but he had become disenchanted with the slow progress inside government walls, and the feeling that some people were in politics “just because they want to be an elected official.”

He wanted to keep fighting for freelancers, but in a different way. “If I wanted to continue advocating and be secured, and be fighting for issues I really cared about,” he said. “I had to leave office at that moment.”

In the middle of our conversation at the taqueria back in March, a woman approached Espinal. She told him the meeting was serendipitous, because she had just DM’ed him. She worked in a Medicaid office and they were having trouble getting access to hand sanitizer to fight the coronavirus. She was concerned about the vulnerable and at-risk patients that needed protecting. As he listened intently and asked what district she lived in, it was clear he had flipped a switch and reverted to his previous role. He told her to tweet about the issue and tag himself, the governor, the mayor, the city councilmember for her district. He assured her he would retweet it and they would get someone’s attention.  She left, a citizen who had been heard.

Espinal laughed. “I wonder if she knows that I resigned.”