Older Women Say PRO Act Unfairly Targets Them
The law would force many independent contractors to become employees, which many older women say would be disruptive to their careers.
Lila Stromer was 52 when she lost her job as managing editor of an academic journal in Chicago. “I was let go on a Thursday,” she says, “and there was somebody right out of college in my seat the next Monday.”
Stromer found herself in a spot that 76 percent of older workers fear: They still want to work, but are unable to find a new job because of age discrimination. That fear is legitimate, given that more than half of older U.S. workers are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire.
After four or five months of job-seeking while freelancing on the side, Stromer gave up the search and decided she preferred freelancing full time. She’s not alone, according to a study by the U.S. Treasury and IRS, which found that female independent contractors are older, on average, than employees — with independent contracting appearing to provide a preretirement option. Even in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, with the U.S. workforce hemorrhaging millions of female workers in what Vice President Kamala Harris called “a national emergency,” the ability to continue earning through self-employment remained a viable path for women like Stromer.
That’s why she is among those enraged that federal lawmakers are even considering the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act. Under the proposed law, many independent contractors would have to be reclassified as employees of their clients — stripping them of the career flexibility they prefer.
PRO Act proponents say that people like Stromer would earn more, have safer working conditions, and gain better benefits by being an employee and eligible for unionization. But from where she sits safely in her home office, earning well and scheduling her day exactly the way she wants with clients of her own choosing, Stromer strongly disagrees.
“I was looking for W2 work—I wanted the steady paycheck,” she says. “I wanted all the things like benefits that go with a W2 job. But the more I did independent work, the more I realized that I was so much happier. I actually like being my own boss.”
She’s especially concerned about the PRO Act after seeing what happened in California since January 2020, when a law went into effect using the means of reclassifying independent contractors as employees. Lawmakers there made all the same promises she’s hearing about the PRO Act now, claiming that the change would benefit independent contractors. Instead, so many California contractors lost income and clients that lawmakers had to go back and exempt more than 100 professions from the law, with problems continuing today.
Lisa Rothstein was among those who took a hit in the Golden State. She’s a 59-year-old creative consultant who says she became “radioactive” to clients who suddenly feared fines from hiring California-based independent contractors at all. Her age made it nonsensical to seek a traditional job as a solution to the problem.
“There are some industries where you’re not welcome after a certain age, and at the same time, you’re not interested in working for them after a certain age,” says Rothstein, who recalls working long hours at advertising agencies during her younger years. “You get to a certain point in your life where you want to have freedom and do your own thing, and maybe you have older parents, and you want to be there for them. Those choices should be available to people.”
Sally Benford agrees. She chose self-employment in 2017, at age 63, after years of being a magazine’s managing editor in Arizona. When the publication where she worked had financial problems, she looked around the office and saw what her competition would be in a job search.
“The people I was working with were all millennials,” Benford says. “The owner of the magazine was Gen X and in her 40s. There was no way that I’d be hired in a traditional job like that at 63.”
Benford instead built a freelance client base that fills 20 to 30 hours a week, which is all she wants. She’s happy as her own boss and says she is outraged at “the power of the unions coming in and telling the politicians, ‘You have to vote for this, or we’re not going to support your campaign.’ That’s what angers me the most. How dare you tell me who I have to work for, how I have to work, what I can earn—that’s the antithesis of the American Dream.”
Stromer also says she’s “extremely angry.” She has been contacting her elected officials in New York, trying to get them to listen—but says she only gets angrier as they insist they want to advance the PRO Act.
“I feel incredibly ignored,” Stromer says. “W2 employment doesn’t want me. My clients do. Why would I want to walk away from the people who actually want me? As a 62-year-old woman, I don’t feel heard very often—and I feel like these senators aren’t listening to me now. I have a brain and skills. I’m fighting like hell. And it’s like I’m a ghost.”