Creative and worried about cash during coronavirus? You’re not alone

“What are we meant to do for the next 11 weeks while we wait for these crisis grants? Where is the rent freeze?”

by Douglas Greenwood
30 March 2020, 2:31pm

Barely a fortnight ago, it might’ve felt like self-employed creatives in the UK were thriving. Maybe they were knee-deep in a shoot, working on an independent film, designing a new identity for a summer music festival, or on-set styling a musician for a magazine cover. The lives of self-employed creatives are, at the best of times, a blessing: an opportunity to decide your own working schedule and pursue projects that those stuck in offices don’t have the freedom to. But when the country and economy seems to fall apart in front of us -- as it did last week with coronavirus forcing us into lockdown -- the safety net seems far flimsier than for those in regular employment, working under a bigger boss.

There was, from the onset of this crisis, a tardy response from the UK government in terms of how -- or if -- those who were self-employed would be helped through this. Regular employees in Britain were told that they’d be entitled to 80% of their monthly wage until they could safely return to their jobs, should they not be able to do them from home. But the self-employed were told to wait a little, as they collectively scrambled to apply for Universal Credit (more than 500,000 in the past 10 days), offering them £94 a week to support their rent payments and food costs until this blows over.

Panic mode ensued -- but then the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced new measures to help protect us: an increase in Universal Credit to £409.89 per month; business interruption loans for those registered as Ltd. companies; and the coronavirus self-employment support scheme, which would offer self-employed people up to £2500 a month for three months.

It sounds good on paper, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find flaws that will personally affect those who live paycheck to paycheck. The coronavirus self-employment support scheme, which is designed to put self-employed people on the same level of support as those in regular employment, well, doesn’t. Rent freezes haven’t been rolled out, so how does an artist waiting on money that will land in their bank account in June pay their living expenses in the meantime? The government have done their best to cater to the needs of the 90% in regular employment. As for the remaining five million? That's a waiting game.

To get a greater understanding of why this newly announced back-up fund for freelancers isn’t quite up to scratch, we asked a collection of creatives -- stylists, photographers, designers and filmmakers -- to give us their perspective on the issue. This is what they told us.

Jeanie Annan-Lewin, stylist and creative director

“I’ve just spent 4 hours and 45 minutes on the phone to [HMRC about] Universal Credit. I have a feeling that this is going to be a shit show. When you’re a stylist you have a crazy amount of expenses -- couriers, assistants, studio rent etc -- that means what I filed [in my most recent tax return] is virtually nothing. Right now I’m trying to navigate what I can realistically live off and how I can pay my landlord and credit card bills to keep them happy. The government has truly shafted us. Nobody who is self-employed has a rainy day fund for global pandemics. I feel overwhelmed and worried. I keep thinking: how am I going to get through this and what does the future hold after it?

Everything has stopped on a professional level but I still have all of these commitments. It’s a very scary time because the fashion industry doesn’t have any type of union -- who do we go to for unpaid invoices or hardship funds? This whole thing has just emphasised how the whole system is fucked."

Marissa Mireles Hinds, filmmaker, poet and creative consultant

“When I first caught on to how lethal the virus was, I knew productions were going to halt and companies were going to go under. The industry wasn’t really ready for something like this. I felt kind of fortunate I got made redundant [shortly before coronavirus impacted the UK], because it gave me the financial security to pay my rent in advance and gave me a few weeks to settle into the social isolation schedule before things were really locked down. I had a couple of interviews before the shutdown occurred, and they went really well, but now they aren’t continuing the hiring process. One of the companies had a coronavirus scare in their building and I haven’t heard much since.

As a Tier 1 visa holder [having grown up in the US beforehand], I have no access to public funds or Universal Credit, which is usually fine as I haven’t needed it. I've realised other immigrants in the UK may be unable to access support as well and securing our future might be more difficult.

At the end of the day, I think the UK is going to support its millions of freelancers and zero contract workers -- especially now that Boris Johnson has gotten sick. I am hoping that it will open people’s eyes to the severity of this disease on the world’s population.”

Harry Hitchens, photographer and filmmaker

"I own a small film production company called Everyday. I’m the only permanent member of staff. Over the past year, we’ve supported the livelihoods of over 150 crew, kit houses, post-production facilities and more -- all of whom pay tax into the system, as do I. When the self employment package was released, I was happy to see all those freelancers I have hired in the past 5 years of trading will be supported [in some way]. As long as they’re not a Ltd. company, they have access to a non-repayable grant and Universal Credit.

I’m technically supported by the same scheme but will receive next to nothing in grants if I bother to apply. This is due to the way in which self-employed people pay themselves if they choose the Ltd. company route. Many pay themselves in dividends instead of salary, [and I] pay more through corporation tax and income tax than I would if I was simply a sole trader. Dividends are not classed by the tax man as proper income. Given that the government is surely aware of how many directors of small companies depend on dividends to survive, they must have known they were forcing [us] to use the funds [we’ve] saved to pay that tax bill for operational costs instead. Next year I’ll have twice the tax bill to pay and half the money to pay it.

As the owner of a creative business I have taken countless risks and had more sleepless nights than any 24-year-old should have. There are many prosperous months, but many more where I’m unsure of how we'll keep our heads above water. From a young age and with no contacts or credentials more impressive than my GCSEs, I’ve built my company in an industry overflowing with rich kids with famous uncles, and now I feel totally abandoned by the government who seems to be supporting everybody else but [small business owners like] me."

Sarah Mercade, set and costume designer

“This winter had already been a quiet period for me, but luckily some well paid jobs from last year had been tiding me over for the last few months. I was counting on work picking up as it always does, so I definitely started to panic when the theatre industry was closed down as I was rocketing towards £0. It's easy to get into Twitter spirals and get really worked up, but I tried not to panic, and put my faith in Boris for perhaps the first time ever. I didn't think it would be possible to continue ignoring the self-employed, and I had faith that measures were coming for us. I did wonder though, and still am wondering, if it's time to ditch this precarious industry altogether and realise my Plan B of becoming a postwoman.

I was in full time education in the 16-17 tax year, but was technically still self-employed -- so this drags my average down dramatically to a figure that won't cover my rent and bills. I really hope this kind of nuance will be taken into account when assessing grants, but we're not really living in an age that embraces nuance: Tory policy tends to err on the side of withholding help from those in need, on the off chance of a small amount of people cheating the system, rather than the other way around. I'm glad that measures have been put in place to assist us during this period of uncertainty, but so many people are going to fall through the net that I truly believe that we should do away with the convoluted bureaucracy and introduce a Basic Universal Income. If that leaves the system open to abuse, I think it's a risk worth taking to be safe in the knowledge that everybody who needs help is receiving it.”

Michael Oswell, graphic designer and art director

“I mainly work for clients in culture and music; sectors that have obviously been hit very hard, and my workload goes up and down constantly so I’m fairly psychologically resilient. Nothing prepared me for the absolute clownery of the government, though. I like working independently, but the fact is that most self-employed workers today are far closer to poverty and destitution than is comfortable. I’m in a relatively good position, too -- I can work from home. What about essential gig workers who can’t?

In short: [the self-employment bailout plan] is too little, too late. It’s over-engineered, it’s clearly guided by a burning sociopathic desire to make sure no-one gets a single crumb more than they supposedly deserve. More generally, it’s wholly inadequate to address the utterly gargantuan labour crisis brewing. What are we meant to do for the next 11 weeks while we wait for these crisis grants? Where is the rent freeze?

Much like how the NHS has been systematically gutted by successive governments, the UK’s benefits system is designed to be meagre, opaque, and punitive. Living on £94 a week is hell. I was on Jobseeker’s Allowance for two years after college and it was miserable then; I can only imagine what it’s like now. I’m dreading applying for Universal Credit. This wretched system is not set up as a safety net -- it’s disciplinary, designed to cruelly ‘incentivise work’, no matter what. We need a complete sea-change.”