Permanent freelancers strike MTV

Protesting a reduction of benefits, scores of MTV network workers walked off the job last week.

Protesting a reduction of benefits, scores of MTV network workers walked off the job last week, filling almost an entire city block on New York City’s Broadway. By week’s end, MTV, a Viacom-owned network, partially backed down, but left many workers unsatisfied.

The walkout highlighted the plight of “permalancers,” a group of permanent freelancers who work like full-time employees but do not receive the same benefits, the “New York Times” reported.

Holding signs that said “Shame on Viacom,” the mostly 20-something workers demanded that MTV reverse a plan to reduce health and dental benefits for freelancers beginning Jan. 1. Many freelancers at media companies receive no corporate benefits at all.

Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union, an organization of 40,000 New York area freelancers, told the newspaper that permalancing is widespread, particularly in the media industry. Protests, however, are rare. “I really think it’s getting to a point where people are not willing to take it anymore,” she said.

Feeling the heat, by week’s end MTV reserved some of the cuts it had intended to make to the benefits package. It said freelancers would be permitted to keep their current health care plans, and it extended by two months the deadline for freelancers to choose plans. It also said it would evaluate whether some freelance positions should be converted to staff jobs.

However, the changes didn’t satisfy many of the workers, who continued their protest. The dissatisfied workers said they are seeking the restoration of paid time off, tuition reimbursement and company matching for 401(k) contributions.

A company spokeswoman told the “Times” that no further changes to the proposed benefits package are expected. However, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said his administration will take on companies that take advantage of freelance or contractor designations.

Robert D. Lipman, an employment lawyer based in Jericho, NY, told the “Times” that companies often classify full-time employees as freelancers or independent contractors to avoid certain tax and benefit laws. “There’s a lot of abuse in this area,” he said.

MTV Networks owns MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and some smaller cable networks and Web sites. Though many smaller channels offer no benefits to freelancers, the “Times” said that Viacom maintains a stable of permanent freelancers who work like full-time employees and do receive benefits packages, albeit less generous ones than those given to permanent, full-time staff members.