Helen Stephens


“When you’re self employed, if there’s no work to do, you’re effectively unemployed. But there’s no support for freelancers who are momentarily unemployed. We can’t claim job seekers allowance, because seeking a new customer isn’t the same as seeking regular employment.”

Helen Stephens

No statutory sick pay, maternity leave, or holiday entitlement.

I first registered as self employed in 2010 when I was facing redundancy. I’d been working in the Voluntary & Community Sector as a Communications Officer, at a time when relatively few community businesses had websites, so I decided to start my own social enterprise, providing affordable web design and digital marketing to voluntary sector organisations. Over ten years of operation, the social enterprise evolved into digital inclusion programmes and its income was a mix of trade and grant funding.

In the beginning, I registered the business as an employer and took a salary. I didn’t want to worry about dealing with a tax bill at the end of the financial year and wanted to use a PAYE system.

It’s fairly common practice for self employed people to set up a limited company, pay themselves minimum wage and claim the rest as dividends. However, social entrepreneurs don’t do that because Companies Limited by Guarantee don’t have shareholders; all profits are reinvested in the organisation.

When I started receiving letters from the pensions regulator about my staging date, I started to panic. I was still running the business by myself and didn’t have the time to understand payroll and pensions. I eventually made myself redundant and worked solely as a freelancer for the business.

The first time I really thought about my employment status was when the government announced an increase in the National Insurance Contributions for the self employed, in line with employees.

Self employed people don’t have things like statutory sick pay, maternity leave, or holiday entitlement. When we’re sick or on holiday we just don’t earn any money. The phrase ‘Time is Money’ comes to mind: I’d attend meetings with people who would sip tea, eat biscuits, and talk about their kids before getting to the point – because they were employed, had a regular salary, and enjoyed having some time away from their desk – while I stared forlornly at the clock and thought about the project I needed to finish in order to pay the mortgage next month.

What happens when there’s no work coming in? Or you’re waiting to hear on a grant application or contract proposal: Sleepless nights.

When you’re self employed, if there’s no work to do, you’re effectively unemployed. But there’s no support for freelancers who are momentarily unemployed. We can’t claim job seekers allowance, because seeking a new customer isn’t the same as seeking regular employment.

The introduction of IR35 added another burden. While it was a good measure, in principle – to prevent large organisations paying staff as freelancers, and avoiding their obligation to make national insurance and pension contributions – it added further worries to social entrepreneurs who feared their business would be fined for paying themselves as a contractor.

While some grant funders understand why not-for-profit organisations work with freelancers -because of the insecure nature of grant funding – there are many funders that view it suspiciously and won’t offer funding unless staff will be employed. Given the nature of grant funding, it makes little sense to employ staff, when paying sessional workers is more cost effective. Essentially it means grants can stretch further, supporting a larger number of people in the community over a longer period. It’s not about maximising profits, but about maximising the impact of engagement and support on the local community.

I’d never considered joining a union. I didn’t see what a union could do to support me as a freelancer.  I understood teachers joining the NUT, and firefighters joining the FBU. Freelancers work across different industries and for some there will be a union that represents them like the Writers Guild or Musicians Union. Which union do you join if you’re self employed in the social economy?

It was Community’s commitment to supporting self employed people with pension schemes, that won me over. Throughout the Covid19 pandemic, I’ve finally understood the benefit of joining a union. I have been reassured by regular correspondence from Community and its fight, on our behalf, to secure the Self Employed Income Support Scheme and the continuing fight to recognise those that have fallen through the cracks of the Government’s grant eligibility policy.

“When you’re self employed, if there’s no work to do, you’re effectively unemployed. But there’s no support for freelancers who are momentarily unemployed. We can’t claim job seekers allowance, because seeking a new customer isn’t the same as seeking regular employment.”

I’m looking forward to working with Community as they take steps forward with specific representation for social entrepreneurs. Given the role community businesses will likely play in rebuilding the economy post-lockdown, it’s crucial that we have a union fighting for more support and allowances for the way social entrepreneurs operate, because unnecessary barriers will stifle the growth of the social economy and our local communities will suffer.



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Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell

“The best part of self-employment is being able to choose who I work with. I choose to work for teams with strong ethics, a desire to make positive change, and who have a realistic chance of doing so.”

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Tom Jennings
Tom Jennings

“Coronavirus has been a gut punch to self-employed people.”

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Helen Stephens
Helen Stephens

“When you’re self employed, if there’s no work to do, you’re effectively unemployed. But there’s no support for freelancers who are momentarily unemployed. We can’t claim job seekers allowance, because seeking a new customer isn’t the same as seeking regular employment.”

Read story