Employed, or self-employed: who has it easier?

I’m self employed, and my wife is a salaried employee.

She’s a team secretary for the Northern Trust (think: NHS) and is on a salary. She gets sick days, leave days, carers’ leave days, extra time accrued, and a steady salary. She drives to work, does her job, and comes home.

I fix guitars for a living. I don’t work for a music shop, I have my own business. I pay rent and rates on a premise, insurance, supplies, materials, tools… No paid days off for me. When I don’t work, I don’t get paid, that’s the end of it. I have to create my own little economy by getting up early, advertising my services, and competing with other businesses to convert random guitarists into loyal customers. I’m a hustler.

Cue the pandemic.

What does she get? She gets told “You’re an essential worker. You’re not staying home. In fact, we might redeploy you somewhere else.”

What do I get? I get the fuck out of Dodge. The live music industry is shrivelling into a sad little raisin, and nobody needs me. But nobody owns me either.

If I was in my wife’s position right now in a pandemic, I’d be questioning what my salary is REALLY worth, and what my options were. I’d be frightened, suddenly a part of an accidental army mobilised to fight an invisible enemy, poorly equipped by a government who thought being rich gives you immunity from real life.

So when you weigh it all up – steady-paycheque-accidental-soldier versus usually-frantic-suddenly-left-hanging-by-the-government-guitar-guy, who’s life is easier?

Shame on you. We’re a team for fuck sake. We live in the same house, and we’re trying to ensure our kids remain safe during this pandemic. (She has it harder, duh.)

As you’ll know from the news recently, it seems the self-employed have been left dangling in the wind. Only after a lot of shouting, the government have come up with a plan to support the self-employed, but it’s completely out of touch with reality. Anyway, let’s not get bogged down in those details, let’s look at some perspectives.

I’m no employment law expert. So take this all with a pinch of salt. But, AS I UNDERSTAND IT, here’s how employment works.

If you’re an employer – that is to say, if you have salaried employees – you have certain obligations. When you take someone on as an employee, it’s no flippant thing. (Or at least it shouldn’t be – we’re looking at you, Wetherspoons and Sports Direct.) An employer has to divvy up the employee’s salary into tax, NIC, maybe union dues, pension, whatever else. There’s a lot of paperwork the employee doesn’t need to worry about. Plus, the employer has to provide for sick pay, time off, etc.

I know a small business owner who has employees, and it sounds like a FUCKING nightmare. If someone can’t work for prolonged periods due to whatever, it’s costing the business to pay them to not show up. And make no mistake – small businesses DO NOT have bank accounts stuffed with yummy reserve money. Survival is month-by-month, week-by-week for many of us. Desolation is always around the corner, waving happily at us. If the money isn’t there, it just isn’t there. This is particularly true for a business that provides a service, rather than a product. Some products sell themselves. (Like toilet paper!) But when you’re selling a service, you need to keep moving, and you need your team to hustle.

I sell a service. I have to hustle. That’s why when I went into business for myself I made a promise: I WILL NEVER HIRE ANYONE. Unless they were self-employed. When you hire someone who’s self employed, you agree on money, they do the work, they invoice you, and you pay them. That’s the end of the relationship. There’s no sick pay, holidays, none of that. It’s like a convenient one night stand, as opposed to a long-term relationship that ends with fighting over who gets the cat.

If you followed the story of Uber, you’ll know that their drivers were trying to obtain ‘employed’ status, whereas the company was trying desperately to keep them on as self-employed. From what I’ve outlined above, I hope you can see where each side is coming from.

Okay, so really, who has the easier life?

There’s no straight answer. There are complexities for everyone. From an employer’s perspective, accounting and social responsibility is easier when hiring the self-employed. But when it comes to a pandemic, and you really need the staff to step up – as in my wife’s case – it’s better to have salaried employees, because if they leave, they’re going to find difficulty getting financial support. In other words, in a crisis, the employer has the employee over a barrel. Or if you like, the system favours the employer.

From an employee’s perspective, having a salary is a dawdle in terms of personal finance. You’re free from the clusterfuck of paperwork that keeps your employer up at night, and it’s simply not your job to worry about the health of the business. (But you’d do well to be aware of it.) By Law, you get days off, and there’s nothing the employer can do about it. But… when the shit hits the fan, your employer might be the devil you know better.

From the self-employed perspective… everydayisafuckinnightmare LOL. I log every penny paid to me by hundreds of customers every year, keeping track of expenses with spreadsheets, setting aside money for taxes, paying an accountant to file the important stuff, paying insurance, rent, rates, materials, blah blah blah. On top of that, I have to make enough to pay the mortgage on the house I live in, and whatever other expenses a dad is responsible for. I am the business, the business is me, and we both have to support my family. But… nobody owns me. I’m a free agent, and I can tell people with money to fuck off if I really want. (Though that never happens so crudely.)

Does anyone have it easier? I think it varies day by day. And these are extraordinary days. I just thank the gods my wife has a salary, and I got paid from my last gig.
Full disclosure – as I’m discovering day by day, I may not be technically ‘self-employed’ but rather, a small business, even if the business is just me, no employees. What’s the difference? I have a bricks-and-mortar shop, for which I pay rent, and business rates. But the day-to-day operation, the hustling, the constant background worry about what tomorrow might bring, is exactly the same as someone working from a van or home office. At the time of writing, I’m awaiting full-blown confirmation of where I stand on the spectrum.

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