UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 1998
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Sara Horowitz , '89
Mark Nusbaum, '85

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The John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation

Working Today

"What we’re trying to do is create the new institutions that are going to support a new workforce," she says, "and to start a broader conversation about how this new economy will work."

Sara Horowitz, '89, wins a ‘genius award' for her pioneering efforts to give independent workers a voice

the freelancers'

active advocate

By Clare O'Shea

25-year-old freelance sound engineer-we'll call him Keith-was strolling in lower Manhattan one morning when he suddenly fell to his knees, gasping for air. Hours later, in a hospital emergency room, he learned that his left lung had collapsed; it would be another few weeks before he could walk down the street again, let alone work. Keith has never had a serious illness, no savings and, like many young people embarking on their careers, no insurance. His hospital bill came to nearly $20,000.
    Sara Horowitz, J.D. '89, didn't blink an eye when she heard this story. She's heard stories like this before. But it's not that she doesn't care: In fact, she cares so much about America's freelancers that she has turned her concern into a full-time crusade. Last year she won a so-called genius award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her efforts.
    Horowitz, who also holds a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.P.A. from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the executive director of Working Today, a nonprofit organization she founded in 1995 to promote the interests of independent workers like Keith. About 30 percent of the American workforce now consists of freelancers, temps, independent contractors and others whose employment arrangements are flexible. The mission of Working Today is to give these workers a voice.
    To start, Horowitz has built up a membership of 95,000 people, some of whom belong to Working Today affiliates like the Graphic Artists Guild, and others who joined through their employers. Along with getting access to group-rate health insurance and free legal and financial advice, Working Today members are part of a burgeoning consumers union. Finally, America's temps have a chance to make themselves heard.
    An articulate, no-nonsense woman in her mid-30s, Horowitz was on overdrive when we met at Working Today's offices in Manhattan one cold January afternoon. Her maternity leave was just four days away, and several projects were clamoring for her attention. We sat at a table in a large, sparsely furnished space that serves as reception, lunchroom and conference room for the seven-person staff. Moving from one meeting to the next with just a glass of water as a break, Horowitz spoke calmly yet forcefully about her organization's mission in a changing economy.
    "What we're trying to do is create the new institutions that are going to support a new workforce," she says, "and to start a broader conversation about how this new economy will work."
    The fact is that millions of people need to work independently, whether they have a choice in the matter or not. But many have had to sacrifice insurance and other traditional benefits in exchange for a flexible schedule.
    "That's the irony right now: You can have all the flexibility you want; you just don't get paid for it," says Horowitz. "You can take an unpaid vacation anytime you want, but if you can't afford it, it's not much of anything. So we're paying a hefty price for flexibility."
    When a third of the workforce is working independently, the other two-thirds can't help but be affected. And in many ways, Horowitz points out, the issues that Working Today tackles are relevant to anyone trying to make a living in the new economy. "There's a great feeling of unpredictability in work life, no matter who you are, a feeling that you're not going to get a job that lasts forever," she says.
    Horowitz speaks from personal experience. After a stint as a public defender, she took a job as an independent contractor with a "very progressive" labor law firm. So progressive, in fact, that it didn't pay her benefits.
    She found the same sort of situation when she worked with the National Health and Human Services Employees Union. "Even with one of the best unions, you could see how the law really wasn't fitting the way people were working. And there was no way to have a conversation about it. So as a lawyer, you were arguing one thing, but it felt very much like you weren't hitting what the real issue was."
    Extracting the real issue in an argument is something that comes with a lawyer's territory. Horowitz credits UB with providing her with the solid groundwork in analytical thinking that is so essential to her profession. "I often think that what law school teaches people is to think "bilingually": There's the way normal people think, and then there's the way lawyers think. And it's helpful to be trained to think like a lawyer because [in a big, complex situation] you need to be able to focus on what the real issue is," she says. "I really loved UB Law because the focus was much more about ideas than just looking at the law in a stale two-dimensional way."
    Her interest in the plight of workers goes further back than UB, however-it runs in the family: Her father was a labor lawyer; her grandfather, a vice president of the Ladies Garment Workers' Union. Horowitz herself started working for unions when she was 18. "I knew I wanted to work in the labor movement. In fact, when I applied to Cornell [for its labor school], it didn't occur to me that there was another side-that somebody could actually want to be in management."
    It wasn't until she enrolled in the M.P.A. program at Harvard's Kennedy School, however, that Horowitz began to figure out how she could make her own contribution. During her first week of classes, she happened to read an article in the New York Times about the need for a jobs lobby and a political voice for workers. The problem, Horowitz thought, was that people were no longer connected to their workplaces.
    "I started to think, ‘Well, what would the new structure be? How would you do it?'" she says. "I think because I had studied labor relations and had worked for unions, I was trying to approach it on a very on- the-ground, practical level. Rather than just a social movement per se, it had to be something rooted to people's everyday life. It was from there that I started to think about Working Today."

decade later, Horowitz still considers Working Today a work in progress. This spring marks the launch of its first big project: a portable-benefits fund for freelancers. The pilot will focus on the new media industry in New York City. So when a freelance web programmer-let's call her Judith-for example, pays the $25 annual membership fee, she will have access to group-rate health insurance benefits that will cost her about $175 per month-30 to 50 percent less than what she pays individually now for a comparable package. Best of all, when Judith moves on to the next website client, which is to be expected in this industry, she will take her benefits with her.
    The portable-benefits fund was a logical first step for Working Today: The lack of af fordable health insurance, Horowitz found, was one problem that confronted freelancers every day. And new media workers in New York City were a perfect focus group, in part because of the sheer size of the workforce-some 100,000 workers, almost half of whom are reportedly freelance-and because their salaries will enable them to meet the premium costs. Once the pilot program is off the ground, Working Today can start expanding the fund to include other groups. In the meantime, the staff is setting up policy forums and public-education projects in an attempt to raise awareness of the issues involved, as well as to keep the organization focused on the broader agenda.
    Working Today got a boost in visibility last year when Horowitz won the MacArthur fellowship, a no-strings-attached grant of $275,000 over five years. It was an important honor for her, both professionally and personally ("It's the pension I never had," she says), but it is still too soon to gauge its impact on her cause. What is clear is that her commitment will continue long after the MacArthur money runs out.
    "I have no doubt that I'll just continue doing this kind of work," she says. "When I was 18 I think I was doing good work, and now I'm 36 and I think I'm doing good work. I hope that into my 60s I'll still be able to say I'm doing good work. Some people play violin, some people lay bricks; this is just what I do."
    In the short run, Horowitz will also be changing a few diapers (her daughter, Rachel, was born in late January) and, if she can find the time, possibly learning how to quilt. Indeed, despite the revolution Working Today may be leading, Horowitz is matter-of-fact about her part in it. Working Today is but one of several labor experiments around the country; there is no one-size-fits-all solution to making work work in America. If she can come up with one viable solution, Horowitz will have made her mark.
    "It's funny: I interview a lot of kids who are right out of college, and they always want to be really effective; they really want to change things," Horowitz says. "I've really grown to like the people who just want to be helpful."

Clare O'Shea, M.A. '87 & B.A. '84, is editor of the parenting and family area of B&N.com, the website of Barnes & Noble.

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