Another Freelance Marketplace Bites the Dust — Elance Work View

You know that here at All Freelance Writing we're incredibly picky about what we will and won't promote. For example, we won't sell out to content mills that exploit writers, and we won't send you to job leads at marketplaces we consider shady.

Speaking of freelance marketplaces, there was actually only one we were willing to openly support -- Elance. I'm sad to say that's no longer the case. In fact, I strongly recommend against using the site due to a recent feature they launched -- the only way these sites are going to start respecting the rights of independent contractors is if you vote with your feet and leave or stop supporting them as we're doing here. (However, that's just my opinion. I'm not calling for an Elance boycott or anything that severe, although it would be nice to see more freelancers stand up and make themselves heard on these issues in other ways.)

What did Elance do that has them on my shit list? Well, they did something much like Odesk -- they now provide a tool that enables clients to act in a Big Brother capacity, potentially crossing the line between client and employer without taking on the responsibilities that come with that (no friends, those costs and responsibilities still rest on your shoulders).

Here's the gist:

Elance has launched a feature called Work View. As Elance themselves put it "clients can view the work as it progresses and provide timely input and guidance." What does that really mean? It means clients get to view a stream of your work as it's completed -- they know when you're working, whether you're there at your computer or not working on their project, etc. by feeding them screenshots. Yes, screenshots are taken from your private machine and fed to clients.

The Pathetic Attempt at Logic

Why would Elance do this? They're doing it under the guise of wanting to help both freelancers and clients. As with Odesk, I'll say that might very well be their intention. I doubt there was any malice... just poor decision-making. The idea is that feeding screenshots guarantees hours for buyers, and if you agree to the intrusive oversight they'll guarantee the payment for hours you were proven to have worked.

What's the problem with this?

The tool enables clients to cross a line. When someone chooses to hire independent contractors they have to give up certain rights -- like overbearing control over the worker. In exchange they save money. They don't have to pay half of your Medicare and Social Security taxes, worker's compensation insurance, overhead costs, or benefits for example.

On the other hand, what you get as a freelancer is freedom. You control when, where, and how you work. The client doesn't get to monitor how a job is done -- they get to evaluate you based on the end result. For that freedom you also make sacrifices. You take on increased taxes. You have to cover all of your own benefits (you don't get paid vacation or sick time, health insurance paid partially by an employer, employer contributions to a 401k, etc.). You take on the overhead costs of your job in most cases (with freelance writers that means you're buying your own computer, office supplies, and maybe renting an office or giving up an area of your home to dedicate it to work).

When clients cross the line in too many factors based on IRS guidelines, they become an employer instead (and having a contract stating otherwise is not enough to change that). If you choose to work in that relationship, you do so knowing the client will have more control as an employer and that they'll also take on more of that financial burden.

This tool, like Odesk's, allows clients to cross quite a few of these lines without taking on the financial burdens they would be required to as employers.

How this Tool Crosses a Line

Below is a list of factors that are considered when determining your legal status as an employee or independent contractor (and your resulting financial obligations and freedom or lack thereof). I'm also going to share how this tool might enable buyers of your freelance writing services to cross the line from client to employer. These are based on the common law rules laid out by the IRS -- factors that determine your level of independence versus employer-like control over your work. [source]

  • Can the buyer determine when and where you complete your work? If so, they lean towards employer status. -- Being able to monitor your computer activities means a client has the ability to determine when you work (for example, they might insist that you work during specific hours which they can verify by monitoring you, even if the work could be done just as well at another time). It also means they can dictate where you work (in front of your computer where they can watch your progress -- if you normally do your brainstorming or outlining by hand somewhere other than in front of the computer for example, you'll be shit out of luck).
  • Can the buyer dictate what tools and equipment you have to use in completing your work? If so, again they lean towards employer status. -- Clients have the ability to require the use of this tool. If you don't agree to the invasive oversight, they can opt to automatically rule you out for a gig. That is a case of requiring a specific tool (and an unnecessary one) to be used by workers.
  • Can the buyer determine what subcontractors you're allowed to hire, or can they insist that all work be done by you personally? Yet again, it leans towards employer status. -- And also yet again, this tool gives buyers the potential to exercise that kind of control if they require that the work be done on your machine which is being monitored. Generally as a freelancer you're allowed to subcontract your work if you so please, and the end client doesn't have to be consulted about that beforehand as long as you deliver the promised work by your deadline.
  • Can the buyer dictate where you have to buy certain products or services in order to do your job? If so, it also leans towards them being an employer and not a client. -- This one doesn't necessarily apply as directly since you aren't paying for the service as far as I can tell.
  • Can the buyer tell you what order you have to complete your work-related tasks in? Again, if so it leans towards employer status. I would argue that being able to monitor your progress in this way gives them the right to dictate sequence -- something they couldn't do if they weren't essentially looking over your shoulder up to five times per hour (how often the screen shots are taken). It allows them to monitor whether you're working exclusively on their project or sharing time between several projects for example -- as a freelancer it's your right to do that if you want to as long as you meet your contracted deadlines for each project. Monitoring services put clients in a position where they can demand you stop and focus exclusively on their work instead of fully controlling your schedule. And that's key... they can. It doesn't even matter if they do. According to the IRS, "The business does not have to actually direct or control the way the work is done – as long as the employer has the right to direct and control the work.... The key consideration is whether the business has retained the right to control the details of a worker's performance or instead has given up that right." So as long as that right exists, you lean towards employee status.
  • How much instruction or training is given to the worker? The more instruction or more detailed the training, the more likely it is the buyer falls under employer status. -- This is another one that's less clear cut though. The IRS acknowledges that sometimes companies aren't in a position to instruct the worker (for example, when they hire someone with extremely specialized knowledge that they don't have themselves). So a lack of strict instruction alone doesn't mean you automatically have independent contractor status. Does this tool affect the level of instruction? I'd argue that it offers that right or opportunity to the buyer whether they choose to exercise it or not... by viewing work in progress instead of the finished project, they naturally are able to step in with increased instructions during the process.
  • How does the buyer evaluate the work? If work is evaluated based on how it's done (during the work process), that leans towards employer status. -- As a freelancer you're contracted for end results. That's generally what a client is able to evaluate your work based on. They generally do not evaluate your work throughout the process before that work is completed.
  • Does the worker make a significant investment or do they have a lot of unreimbursed expenses? If so, there's a better chance they fall under independent contractor status. -- However, not all businesses require a significant investment (like freelance writing) so that alone doesn't assure your status as an independent contractor. The tool doesn't directly impact this one point, but I'm including it so you have a better overview of the entire determination process of employee vs independent contractors. Contractors also aren't generally reimbursed for expenses to the same degree as employees, but unless your buyer is reimbursing fees you might pay to the freelance marketplace, this shouldn't be a problem for you.
  • Does the worker have the ability both to earn a profit and suffer a loss? If you don't have profit and loss potential, you're more likely to be classified as an employee. -- This is another big issue with these freelance marketplaces stepping in with "guaranteed payments." They're directly interfering with this issue by taking away a worker's ability to suffer a loss. Losses are a reality of business. Yes, it might sound appealing on the surface to have payments guaranteed. But newsflash: that's what contracts are for. If you aren't taking a financial risk, it might play a role in you giving up your status as an independent contractor. Personally, I find this kind of meddling incredibly insulting to freelancers -- as though marketplaces are saying you're not capable of running your business so they'll take you under their wing if you agree to what I would consider inappropriate observation of your work in exchange. At the same time, they affect your profit potential. Hourly rates freelancing are not always based on 60 minutes. Hourly rates are quoted very often based on an expected turnaround time. If you happen to do an outstanding job and finish the work more quickly, you're not paid less for being good at what you do. On the other hand, if you occasionally misjudge a time estimate and it takes you longer to finish a project, then the client isn't billed for additional hours at your hourly rate. You eat that cost. That is what profit and loss with hourly contracting is all about folks.
  • Are the worker's services available to other buyers within the market? -- Again, the tool doesn't directly impact this factor, but I want you to have the full picture. Unless a client insists that you can't offer services to others, you should be okay on this front. Of course, if you're not sending full sets of screenshots (you can delete some if they're irrelevant to the client's project, but then the time isn't guaranteed for that 12 minute increment) the client might very well start insisting that you take time away from other tasks that aren't directly going to their project -- something they might be less likely to do if they weren't monitoring you. Again, it comes down to their rights... not what they necessarily choose to do.
  • How is the worker paid by a buyer? Clearly if they're paid a typical salary, that would fall towards employee status and if they bill per project it would lean towards independent contractor status. What about hourly pay? -- Interestingly, the IRS notes that hourly pay in many cases leans towards an employer / employee relationship. That said, there's also an acknowledgment that some contractors do tend to bill hourly (lawyers and other types of consultants for example). Here's the concern I have on this one though. Elance (in response to me on Twitter yesterday) put a real emphasis on the fact that this tool is only used regarding hourly pay (as though that made it okay). So let's be clear. We're talking about hourly pay, guaranteed pay, and a set weekly pay schedule. Hmmm. That sure seems to lean towards a traditional hourly employee pay model, doesn't it? It does sound that way to me, and in my opinion that's a huge strike against this tool. Generally an independent contractor does their own billing on their own schedule and they retain the right to set their own payment terms.
  • What kind of relationship do the buyer and worker have? Here are a few other factors related to working relationships that might influence employer or client status in a buyer. -- First, the type of contract can play a role. As I mentioned earlier though the actual behavior has more weight than a contract in determining your status as a worker -- in other words, an employer can't force you to sign a contract stating you'll work as an IC and pay all the taxes and expenses yourself just so they can save money, but then proceed to treat you as an employee. Whether or not the buyer provides benefits also plays a role. If they do, they lean towards employer status. If it's expected to be a permanent ongoing relationship, that can also lean towards employer status, as can the level of importance of the work to the buyer's business. If the work plays a key role in the business' success or failure, then it's a fair assumption that the buyer will retain the right to exercise more control over the worker and the work.

Whew! I know that's a lot to digest. If you missed the link earlier, you should read this article from the IRS directly to get a more general overview.

Respect Your Rights

I sincerely hope that freelancers will start respecting their rights as self-employed individuals instead of rolling over every time a company makes warm and fuzzy promises of things like supposedly group insurance or guaranteed pay (not just talking about Elance here).

Elance's argument to me was that this tool is completely optional. It's not. If a buyer has the right to discriminate against a service provider because they choose not to accept the terms of this Work View service, then that is not completely optional. Remember, even signing a contract saying you're an IC while being treated as an employee does not supercede the determination based on the actual working relationship. Opting into this would therefore logically be no different. (And if someone wants to claim it is, please explain because it must be beyond me.) Is Elance directly hurting your independent contractor status? No. But they're putting a tool in the hands of buyers who may or may not know any better -- a tool that allows the buyer to cross that line on the majority of fronts listed above.

What can you do if a client forces you to make too many concessions? Do you just have to sit back and take it, paying more taxes, covering your own benefits, and still giving up control in your own business? No. If you feel that an individual client was really an employer (who should have been covering these costs), you can fill out IRS form SS-8 and let the IRS make an official determination for you based on the unique facts in your case. But please... don't make the situation worse for freelancers all across the country by essentially telling buyers it's okay to impose on freelance professionals. If you tell them it's okay with you, they'll think it's okay with the rest of us as well. It's not. And I hope you have more self-respect than that. If you want guaranteed pay and someone looking over your shoulder while you work, you already have an option for that -- become an employee instead.

What do you think of tools like Elance's Work View service or the similar service from Odesk? Share your thoughts in the comments. My thoughts? I'm incredibly sad to see Elance disregard contractors in this way even if they're doing so with honorable intentions. And until this tool is killed we unfortunately cannot support them within the freelance writing community.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this article is not meant to serve as legal advice. Employment law varies based on location. The information cited here is in reference to work completed by U.S. based workers. Please consult an employment attorney if you have questions about your specific situation.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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129 thoughts on “Another Freelance Marketplace Bites the Dust — Elance Work View”

  1. Jenn, you hit the nail RIGHT on the head. I’ve been exchanging messages with Elance today (along with a lot of other very unhappy freelancers) just on this topic. One expense you forgot: the providers (freelancers) pay Elance monthly PLUS a percentage of their compensation; the buyers pay very little if anything at all.

    If I wanted to be an hourly worker with someone checking my every minute and every move, I’d get a job at Walmart or in a factory. I am not a child, and what is on my desktop at any given moment is my business, as long as I give my client the RESULTS.

    I have found several good and long-term clients on Elance, but I have recently been reducing my time there. I also have many wonderful and long-term clients and many referrals through my own marketing efforts.

    Thank you for this…Elance could’ve asked the people who pay them first…

  2. excellent excellent post, especially the IRS guidelines. I’ve seen MANY a “freelance” job take place ON SITE. Really? How many of the IRS guidelines to those jobs trigger? Probably a lot.

    Elance- come ON! Really? yes, it’s an optional feature but, this is reeealllllyyy moving away from the “freelance” part of “–elance.” I would never hire using that feature, or BE hired using that feature.

  3. This is really a downright scary situation. Not only was Odesk not held accountable for this in the first place, but that lack of accountability has led to other marketplaces (Elance) thinking this is okay or in any way appropriate.

    If Elance wants to guarantee payments and monitor work, then they should be operating as an employment agency where workers are their employees and they handle fee collection and payouts. But of course that would mean not charging service providers (there’s precious little more unethical in this game than charging actual employees for the right to work with a company). So really, the only acceptable solution I see here is for Elance to step up where Odesk wouldn’t, admit this was a bad idea for the people they supposedly exist to serve, and kill the tool. Will that happen? I highly doubt it, but I’ll remain hopeful for now. Someone has to start demonstrating good sense in the freelance world. I’d like to think Elance has it in them.

    On-site alone isn’t necessarily a no-go on the contractor front. For example, contractors are often brought on-site to manage consulting and training of regular employees. The key with those kinds of gigs is that they’re generally very short-term, and they might not be every day. For example, a 3-month contract to help with a new program initiation where someone isn’t forced to work exclusively for that buyer is a very different thing than an open-ended “freelance” contract on-site where it’s basically assumed things will be a permanent or semi-permanent working solution.

    I do think Elance was trying to do a good thing. They just didn’t seem to consider the full situation, and in the end (in my opinion) this is an incredibly bad thing for freelancers all across the U.S. We need people to understand what freelance means… and that doesn’t mean coddling by a marketplace who will cover the bills if Big Daddy Client doesn’t pay up. It means supporting them as the independent (and very capable) professionals that they are — or helping them to become more capable independent professionals if they’re just starting out.

    So Elance… won’t you step up?

    • Well said, Jennifer – not only your original post but the above statement as well. I have always been encouraged to use Elance and other sites but never have because I agree with you, I don’t think I should have to PAY anyone to find my own work nor give them a cut of my income. There was/is just something wrong with this idea, for me. Now with this new Work View feature and also Elance deciding what you can charge for your work? I’m stunned! You’re right, they are becoming more of an employment agency, and not a good one. A reputable employment agency does not charge the employee (temp. or permanent) to find work, the companies pay the agency.

      While I’d love Elance and other sites to step up and remove these features/policies, I highly doubt they will too. Unfortunately, this type of thing makes it that much more difficult for freelancers to find work that pays, pays well (what we decide to charge), and to work when and how we want to work (without anyone moderating our progress). We’ve all been there, done that and have chosen to freelance in order to gain freedom within our life and our work, without a hovering boss. This screenshot “option” gives me the creeps.

      We’ll be discussing your post at our weekly writers chat room tonight. Should be a great one! You’re welcome to join us, if you’d like, at @ 8pm EST.

      • I know how old this makes me sound, but 8pm is actually my bedtime. lol (the one downside of getting up at 4 most mornings during the week). Do you archive the chats somewhere on the site afterward by chance?

        I agree about not paying for work. I can understand the thought that they should get something since they’re bringing you all the clients. And if they were bringing mostly good clients, I might even agree with them. But generally I don’t pay for referrals when I get them and I don’t charge for them when I give them (I know people who do). To have to pay for the right to compete w/ the lowest common denominator is just silly though, so it doesn’t make sense for professionals.

        And you’re right — they are acting in almost an employment agency role, and there would never be a good excuse for someone in that capacity to charge the workers. The workers are their assets — not the job listings. The hiring parties are the ones with naturally the most money to lay out, and they’re the ones charged to have access to a pre-vetted work pool.

        A lot of what Elance does really doesn’t make much sense anymore.

        • My husband is up at 4am, so I completely understand about 8pm being too late for you. 🙂 Unfortunately, the chats are not archived but I’ll see if Audrey (founder/owner of the site) can do some copying & pasting tonight w/everyone’s permission. I’ll take notes too. Should be interesting.

          • That’s too bad. But come back and let me know what people are saying in general. I’m shocked by how many people are okay with it. Fortunately being okay with it personally doesn’t overrule the employee vs. IC issue legally. If it did, we’d be in even bigger trouble as a whole as companies get away with this crap.

  4. I don’t use Elance anymore. This is just another reason why I won’t go back. It’s mind boggling to me, why this would be put in place. In my situation, I would probably be screwed. I’m the type of person who spends a good portion of my time working off-computer. I jot down notes, outline, etc. on paper and I run thoughts through my mind before I actually type the article or whatever project I’m working on. If I spend 2 hours on the project and the actual writing part was only 45 minutes, would I have to fight to get the pay I deserved, since I wouldn’t really be able to prove that I worked off-computer? It just makes me wonder. I certainly hope that if this system continues, a person’s rating wouldn’t be affected as well.

    • What might seem strange to some is that I actually don’t use Elance at all. I don’t need freelance marketplaces. I don’t care for the race-to-the-bottom atmosphere these bidding sites naturally promote. That said, I know some of my readers do, so I try not to completely piss on their parade. We give them credit when due (like when Odesk got rid of the false “insurance for freelancers” style claim that used to be on their site). And when we look for good gigs to promote, we don’t rule them out completely. In fact, we regularly promoted Elance gigs, not because they’re all-around great but because they were the most respectable (in my opinion) at that time and had the most quality gigs worth promoting. But I can’t in good conscience refer them to newer writers trying to get a start anymore, and that makes me a wee bit sad. It was nice having a few different options worth promoting. And do you know what’s saddest of all? That means the best advertised gigs (that don’t put these kinds of intrusive tools in buyers’ hands) is actually now Craigslist. Yes, it’s a sad, sad day in freelance writerville (nod to Yo).

  5. Bingo.

    I made a less well-researched response to a thread about Odesk’s system a few weeks, wondering whether it inched across the legal line separating independent contractors into the world of employment.

    But beyond the legal elements of this stupidity is its insulting nature. I might think about hiring a part-time nanny for my two little ones, but I’m sure as f**k not going to subject myself to the peering eye of some bid board babysitter.

    I work for myself because I want to the freedom to do things my way. If it was all about the Benjamins, I’d lose 20 pounds so I could fit into my suits, shave and walk back into the corporate world. I value my independence far too much to let some random person stare virtually over my shoulder while I work.

    To be honest, I think anyone who would subject themselves to this kind of technopaternalism is far *more* desperate than those who are willing to work for low rates. At least the folks on the shallow end of the rate pool (excepting those who are working through these boards and systems) maintain a modicum of dignity.

    Can you tell this is a hot button for me, lol?

    • I ripped into Odesk for their similar tool too. A rep did respond. The response was very similar to that of Elance’s to me on Twitter about this. Basically people think that calling it “optional” means it’s okay. They completely neglect the fact that it does not matter if a freelancer opts in. You can’t opt into an improper legal worker status. You can’t opt to be treated like an employee but still call yourself an independent contractor (speaking in the US obviously). That’s not the way it works. These tools are enablers. Here’s the truth of it — there is no “option” involved when you can basically be coerced into giving your rights away because if you don’t do it you won’t land the gig. I just can’t figure out why that’s so hard for some people to wrap their heads around.

      It’s a hot button issue for me too, so I completely get it. For me, it’s not about personal use. It’s about all of the new writers that come here or come to me privately for help, and this just being one more case of them being taken advantage of or misled into thinking this is appropriate in the freelance world. With things like this allowed to continue, it’s no wonder so many new writers have no idea about the better opportunities. This isn’t even giving them basic professional decency.

  6. Thank you, Jennifer, for this honest and thorough account of the Elance situation. I am having a particularly bad week with another, um, freelance marketplace. Your comments about Elance together with my rage are helping me realize that no matter how desperate I am for cash, my freelance writing time is better spent elsewhere. I’m really kind of sick about it all.

    • If you’re really desperate for cash, one of the best things you can do is probably start cold pitching prospective clients. I’m not sure what you specialize in, but I’ll give you an example of a company I considered pitching on editing services a while ago but didn’t because of schedule constraints (and perhaps they’ve cleaned up the site since then, so they might not be worth pitching now). — I love their services. They target people selling digital projects. That includes quite a lot of writers. Yet the writing on their site was really, really bad in some places. It wasn’t even that the marketing message had problems. The issues were basic spelling and grammar. In that kind of situation what you might do is take a look at a company’s site, find specific examples of problems, and send off an email pitch explaining how more professional content or copy would add more value (such as not turning off a large segment of their target market who really do care about such things).

      As for freelance marketplaces, I wish I could recommend one to pick up and move on with. But after this, there are none left worth recommending in this writer’s eyes.

  7. Agreed – I won’t be using Elance or Odesk while this applies (not that I was anyway). Like Wendy, I multitask – and the software won’t track the times when I am thinking about a client job while I’m away from my desk.

    • Exactly. And what about things like research time? For example, let’s say you’re reading several blogs and news sites to get a wide variety of background on a topic before sitting down to write. How does it look to a client if you have an hour of “reading” coming up. Most I know don’t want to pay you hourly for “reading.” So you’d have to risk a dispute with them or not let that time be monitored (meaning it’s not guaranteed pay anyway).

      The whole guaranteed pay thing in generally seriously pisses me off. Freelancers are big girls and boys (and if they’re not, then they need to grow up or get out of business because it’s not for them). If they want “guaranteed pay,” then they’re not ready for life as a freelance professional. That involves running a business. It involves risk. Not having someone babysit you (as Carson put it) or having someone hold your hand because you don’t know enough about your own job to be able to chase down invoices. That my dearies is life… the freelance life. Deal with it.

  8. This can’t be serious. Screenshots?? There’s absolutely no reason a client should have that kind of access to the work process. It’s like “Why don’t you just come to my house and peer over my shoulder while I do your work?” Completely ridiculous and unnecessary.

    The only time I can see a client needing to provide “timely input and guidance” is when their original instructions have not been clear enough for the freelancer to understand in which case the freelancer needs to ask more questions, not give up rights to privacy.

    • … or the clients who don’t know what they want until they see it. 😉

      But yeah. Screenshots are terrible. I don’t think that’s quite as bad as Odesk’s setup, but in the end it’s the same result. It infringes on the freedom of independent contractors, and in my opinion quite unjustly so. People need to have a spine and stand up to these kinds of practices before they become the norm among buyers. And with one company after another getting away with it because contractors aren’t taking them to task and asserting their rights, I’m genuinely worried that the trend will continue.

      Anyone who wants to protect the rights of freelancers, spread the word. Share this post. Tweet about to to @Elance and / or @Odesk. Let them know that enough is enough and we expect to see changes. Stop letting companies treat you like children who need their coddling, and stop letting buyers think it’s okay to treat you more like an employee when they’re not willing to pay for the right like everyone else.

  9. First of all I’ll just say that I’m not a writer – but I agree that perhaps it is a bit of an invasion of privacy on the worker. Howevr, considering that it’s optional ( I read your post about this not being ok either), and that it’s in order to keep track on people who are being paid by the hour and should therefore be working for that hour, I think it’s a fairly reasonable step to make sure people are working when they say they are and are accepting money as a result. I mean, if you’re working then what will that screenshot be of, other than the work you’re meant to be doing?

    This system has surely come as a result of a problem that needs solving, perhaps that problem was people being paid to work hours that they never did? I’m not talking from a position of experience, merely an observer 🙂

    • No, it’s not a “fairly reasonable step.” People who want hourly workers are hiring part-time or full-time employees. That is a very different thing (legally) than hiring independent contractors. They do not have the right to exercise as much control over those contractors. If they have trust issues with that working relationship then they have another option that protects them. It involves paying half of the taxes, insurance, and other financial and legal responsibilities. If they don’t want to take that on, then they do not have the right to excessively monitor their workers who do take on those obligations. Period.

  10. Wow. So I was reading up on the Elance community’s response. First, I’m glad to see so many freelancers there expressing similar concerns. Sadly though there are also a lot of very naive comments from people supporting it without realizing the potential legal and financial implications involved (as detailed in the post here). Basing a decision on that kind of feedback is dangerous because it allows the ignorant to speak for those who know their rights, and for them to influence changes (or a lack thereof) that can weed those freelancers trying to abide by rules of their legal employment status out of contention for otherwise legitimate gigs.

    What really jumped out at me though is that Elance’s rep responding there is giving me the impression that they might not really understand hourly contract work. It is NOT the same thing as hourly work in an employer / employee relationship — hence the IRS distinguishing that type of hourly work as a sign of an employer relationship rather than a client. Here’s the quote:

    “On an hourly job, it is your time that is being paid for by your client. Do they have the right to see how that time was spent? Not so on a fixed price job. So long as you produce a quality deliverable on time, what is done with that time doesn’t matter. You can switch between jobs, do your banking, etc. You’ve taken on the risk for your time there. You agreed to produce whatever it is regardless of the time spent. On an hourly job, the client has taken on the risk for the time, and is paying for an hour devoted to their requirements.”

    What’s wrong with this? Well, they summed it up nicely. What they’re talking about are hourly jobs, not a contractor / client relationship. No, a client doesn’t have the right to monitor how all your time is spent. Again, based on IRS guidelines it is indeed the end results (not how hours are spent) that plays a major role in determining employee or IC status. If they want those protections, then they do so as an employer. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s called hiring part-time employees.

    You do not get to monitor your mechanic to see if an hour billed is an hour worked. Why not? Because they’re contractors. They’re able to bill you an hour for work that should take an average professional an hour. If they give you their top guy and he gets it done faster, you still pay for an hour. If you get a new mechanic and it takes him 2, you still only pay for one. That is an IC hourly job. When it comes to consultants, you also do not get to monitor their time. They might choose to submit time sheets, but clients do not get to watch over your shoulder to see what you’re doing during that time. If they don’t trust their contractor, then they need to either find another one or find another rate structure. Elance seems to be way off base on this one. At least that’s how I see it. How about you?

    • Just because a client pays for an hour of my time doesn’t mean I have to spend 60 consecutive minutes on their project. I can do it 15-30-15 or however I choose.

      • Yep. But if a screenshot happened to catch you at a moment doing something else (your right as a contractor to plan out your schedule in any way you please) then that time wouldn’t be guaranteed. And that’s fine. But as long as the tool offers even the possibility that clients can or will use it to exercise undue control and monitoring (such as refusing to pay if you delete irrelevant screenshots or work away from the computer just because they can’t watch over your shoulder so-to-speak), this tool is a major potential problem for independent contractors (and not just writers).

    • Heh heh… I hoped someone would pick up on the mechanic analogy I used (or did you come up with it independently, Jenn?) It’s the perfect example.

      I should be the one to benefit from the fact that I can do a job in 45 minutes that would take someone else half the time, NOT the person who hires me. My client doesn’t need to be peering over my shoulder – he just needs to be freaking grateful when the work is done perfectly and on time.

      I make a lot of money on Elance. I only work with clients who work with me on fixed price, and I get a deposit 9 times out of 10 – despite Elance warning buyers blatantly to not work with providers who demand a deposit.

      I won’t be bullied by Elance or any client who thinks they are my ’employer’ – I’m a freelancer, g*d****it, and I didn’t start working for myself to have the freedom I pay for so dearly (higher taxes, no health insurance) taken away by a snot nosed website interested in catering to the lowest common denominator.

      • I’ll add that I downgraded to a basic membership several months ago, and pretty much only have a few repeat clients and some invites from referrals in the system – most of my work is generated from private avenues, now.

        I find each upgrade to be more laughable than the last in the terms of the sheer amount of time and money they spend on stupid c**p like this when they don’t fix basic stuff like getting tehir email and file upload to work properly.

        • How does that work with referrals exactly? If you didn’t respond to a job ad of theirs through Elance, I don’t see how they could force you to work with referrals directly on Elance. A referral is always a private thing (unless I’m missing something), in which case shouldn’t you be able to tell those buyers you’ll only work with them off Elance? A referral from another Elance user shouldn’t tie you to their system for a gig. That should only be the case when both you and the buyer encountered each other independently there. But who knows? Maybe Elance insists on more control than seems reasonable… I guess it wouldn’t be much of a stretch given this software.

          • RE: referrals – when they come as an invite through the Elance system, I can’t take them off (why I tell clients to please refer me privately and hand out my email freely) – and a few clients I like all right — just don’t trust 100% and the escrow system does protect me to a degree (I am looking into a way to get an escrow system set up on my own currently in build website).

            Some clients like Elance, too – so I let them use it as long as my personal conditions are met: half up front, for example, which Elance actually warns buyers against (another irritant- Elance sets the buyers up from the word ‘go’ to assume we are all crooks, thanks Elance!)

          • Grace — That’s really interesting information, so thanks for sharing.

            To me, I’d consider it a major overstep of Elance’s authority to control where referred work must be done. If you and the client find each other through the system publicly, that’s one thing. But having to do another project through their system just because you did a previous project with a different client who happened to refer you there — that sounds like undue control over the operation of your business to me. There’s no way in hell I’d allow for that.

            As for them suggesting against deposits, that sounds like another example of how out of touch they are with the world of freelance professionals. I actually bill in full up front 99% of the time, and clients have no problem with it whatsoever. In fact that’s quite normal for certain types of freelancing. Regardless, it’s not their place to interfere with billing practices — that’s taking some of the financial control away from freelancers (which is one of the factors determining whether they technically are contractors or employees). It sounds like they’re causing some of the distrust issues they’re supposedly trying to fight against with this poor excuse of a tool. That’s doubly disturbing.

            If Elance wants so much control, they need to officially become a virtual staffing agency and hire the providers as their employees before farming them out to clients.

      • No, I didn’t notice that someone else had used the mechanic analogy. I was just echoing from the same point I made previously here a while ago (I believe in reference to the similar Odesk issue).

        I can understand the lure of hourly in some cases, having worked as a consultant in the past. The problem here is that Elance doesn’t differentiate between what hourly independent contracting is versus hourly employee statuses of workers. And that’s a huge problem because they’re acting like they’re the same thing.

        I won’t assume Elance is intentionally attempting to be a “bully.” I think it’s more that they were just naive to the potential problems. At least I hope that’s the case, since the alternative would suggest they just didn’t care.

        “snot nosed website” LOL – Love that.

        • I love the mechanic analogy and use it all the time:) I agree that this is flirting with the gray areas as regards employee/employer relationship – Elance has repeatedly referred to buyers/clients as employers which is annoying and demeaning.

          The continual catering to the lowest common denominator by making it easier and easier to get work done below the minimum and the failure to market for quality rather than sweatshop price will eventually drag Elance down to Odesk level. Guru is the next step – they are sliding downhill as well.

          I and a few of the other writers/designers/etc keep floating the idea of our own consortium – it would be so much better and professional if we had our own site. We just need a trust fund baby to come along and help us get it set up 😉 <— wink

          • If they’re flat out referring to clients as employers on the site, they’re definitely a part of the problem when it comes to buyers being ignorant of the differences. The two terms are not interchangeable, as there are legal, control, and financial differences — Elance should know that and be making those statuses incredibly clear on their site rather than potentially confusing their users.

            The minimum wage issue is a big one, since Elance’s minimum is apparently $5 per hour (lower than the federal minimum wage). That wouldn’t be a problem if they were able to keep it limited strictly to clients. But because they enable crossover from client to employer status, that means they could be directly enabling some buyers to circumvent minimum wage laws.

            I almost did something similar in the past — a sort of writer referral network where there would be both advertised gigs and the referrals built -in (no fees or need to operate through the site). While the idea was to keep it to pros at a higher level as an alternative to the race to the bottom mentality of places like these, it came down to being too difficult to enforce. So I opted for a professional freelance writing marketplace instead (near the top of this blog). It’s still new and we haven’t promoted it heavily to buyers yet — still need to make some formatted tweaks this month, and we wanted to get a provider base built up first. But I know I refer a lot of my own prospects to that list when they’re looking for something other than newbies and I can’t take on the work. So while it’s not quite what you’re talking about, at least it’s a hands-off option where you don’t compete with $5 per hour writers when people are looking for someone in your specialty area.

      • I know this is 4 years old, but a question about the tax portion. Is more money taken out of your paycheck each time a job is done?

        • If they’re working as a client and hiring you through Elance, no taxes are withheld from your pay. It would be your responsibility to report the earnings and pay the taxes. Employers do withhold taxes, but they also pay half of it. That’s one of the big issues here — clients are able to act like employers but they don’t take on those reporting, collection, and financial responsibilities.

          • I see. So would I have to report my earnings when I’m filing my taxes. I wouldn’t have to do it as soon as I earn my payment, just keep my payment stubs/invoices so I can report those earnings?

          • That depends where you live. In the U.S. for example, there are quarterly filings for self-employed folks. If you live elsewhere, the general rules might be different. But I don’t give any kind of financial or tax advice. Your best bet is to meet with an accountant who can help you sort out what records you need to keep and when you need to report things.

  11. Wow! This has REALLY hit a nerve here and on the Elance Community Board (including a few comments by yours truly). I have scheduled this post to go out on my Social Oomph for the next several days.

    Please take the time to read all of the comments here. Two things that Jennifer said:
    1) if you are relying on Elance (or any other entity) to give you guaranteed payments, then you are an employee.
    2) As a freelancer, even a creative-type, you are in BUSINESS. Part of what you MUST learn is to work this AS A BUSINESS with all of the ups and downs and peaks and valleys and floods and droughts of income. That’s where the freedom comes in. As I said: if you a guaranteed hourly income with someone watching your every move, get a job at Walmart.

    If you are a professional freelancer, you must insist, no demand, respect for your skills and for the value you bring to the client through the RESULTS, not the time spent.

    Thanks for this outlet.

    • “Possibly,” “likely,” or even “probably” an employee as per #1. Not saying it’s definite. I try not to make clear cut determinations based on single factors… just alerting U.S. freelancers to the potential very serious issues involved when they allow buyers to cross multiple lines. 🙂

  12. I worked through Elance exclusively when I first started writing but then switched over to Guru when I figured out I made about 30 times as much money through that site. But I recently went back to Elance, just to poke around and do a small project or two. I instantly disliked the “new” (to me) design of Elance but had no idea that’s what the Work View feature did. Once I finish the project I’m working on, I won’t go through Elance in the future. That’s downright creepy.

  13. Jenn:

    Thanks to you (and Yo) for bringing this to light. I would bet that more than one person was not tuned into the IRS guidelines on this topic. Personally, even without the guidelines, I just don’t get why someone is okay with this.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a baby boomer (a.k.a. mature individual-o.k. probably not mature-just old 🙂 ) and a victim of identity theft – 3 times – that I have a real hard time accepting someone thinking they have a right to my computer. Heck, I get ticked off with cookies telling where I’ve been, resulting in immediate pop-ups for that product or service!

    There are so many really great resources for ideas on creating income and marketing strategy for freelance writers–this site for one & great books. I just bought The Wealthy Freelancer–fabulous ideas! Wish it was out when I 1st started.

    Even if a writer is just looking for some pocket change while working another job, there are other alternatives. I am a strong believer in not judging people for the decisions they make (it’s their business – in more ways than one!) but sometimes they don’t have all the information so I appreciate you taking the time & your passion to let them know.

    Then the decision really is theirs.

    • Definitely a thanks to Yo. She found the story and passed it along. I just ran with it because A) she’s kind of busy dealing with surgery and B) it really pissed me off.

      I don’t really care what types of jobs other people take. What makes me “judge” someone is more when they either do something that is going affect me and other freelancers or even worse when they try to thrust lousy information on new freelancers who don’t yet know they’re full of shit. Giving newbies bad information that digs them into ruts that they then spend months to years trying to dig out of is unforgivable in my book.

      This has a similar potential I worry. As I mentioned to someone privately earlier, I can see this monitoring potentially leading to a situation where clients have so much control and oversight that freelancers don’t have enough freedom to really improve their careers. I worry it might pose the risk of too much dependency. When they’re treated like employees they might start acting like them, thereby not putting in proper marketing time and other work to build their careers beyond Elance and their current clients.

  14. This is another good read for freelancers. It touches on some issues I didn’t even include in this post such as:

    1. Minimum wage
    2. Control over breaks (or the lack thereof)
    3. Overtime

    These are all other potentially big issues that come into play when someone who should / could be classified as an employer still acts as an employer but does so under the guise of being a client.

  15. Besides being an obvious freelancer vs. employee issue, this “tool” is an incredible invasion of privacy. Shame on Elance for even entertaining this idea, nevermind actually offering it as an option.

  16. I am especially bummed about this because a) I’ve been pretty vocal about my support and usage of Elance and b) I found Elance to be a great resource when I don’t market as heavily.

    The fact that it is an optional service sounds okay at first glance (or first hearing, I guess you can’t hear with a glance) but when you think about it, you realize that it starts to perpetuate this notion that a client of my business (or your business) is owed some kind of accountability from me other than a flawless deliverable by the due date. That pisses me off. What’s next–you need to take a picture of me to make sure I’m not picking my nose while I write your copy? Frankly, its no one’s damn business how I do my work and whether or not I pick my nose while I’m doing it. I owe clients a deliverable, not a process.

    If freelance writers want to be respected and paid well, they must respect the fact that they are BUSINESS OWNERS and DEMAND to be treated as such. This takes the industry one step backward as far as I’m concerned.

    • Now here’s dedication. Back from surgery today, supposed to be resting, and here you are still chiming in to support freelancers. You go girl. lol

      You put it far better than I. Freelancers are indeed business owners and yes, they should demand respect in that capacity. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about freelance writers, designers, data entry folks, or anything else. Rules apply for a reason. It also doesn’t matter if Elance offers other options like per project pricing. There is no situation when working with freelancers where this model is acceptable imo, and as long as it’s even on offer it puts undue control in the hands of buyers who are not prepared to pay for it (and I don’t mean paying Elance… I mean paying their share of taxes, benefits, etc. which is what they need to be doing if they want employer-like control over how the work process is run).

  17. And another thing–why would people hire a freelancer that they think they can’t trust and that they need to spy on? Okay, so great, you get screen prints from that smarmy, untrustworthy freelancer–do you actually trust that their content is accurate? That they didn’t just make up a bunch of crap? It makes absolutely no sense. If you have a crappy worker and you don’t trust them FIND SOMEONE ELSE. Why the heck would you want to work with an offsite professional that you thought couldn’t be trusted?

    • I find it almost amusing that sites like this feel like it’s their place to step in to try to foster trust. If you really want to build more trust between buyers and sellers, you don’t run a marketplace that pits people against each other often on the criteria of lower pricing (as most bidding sites do). You weed out the bottom feeders, cheapskates, and people who offer no value (the ones who only compete on price because it’s all they have going for them). That would breed trust. All this does is make me distrust Elance.

      These sites need to remember they are platforms. Leave the business to the professionals actually conducting it, and take your cut. Nothing wrong with that. But meddling in the actual working relationships (or even putting out options with that potential outcome) is not the right approach if you want to attract trustworthy contractors and buyers in the first place.

      People who are truly trustworthy don’t need to worry about these things, and they’re responsible enough in their own business to research potential buyers or contractors thoroughly before working with them. Those who don’t frankly deserve whatever they get.

  18. Has anyone here used for freelance writing jobs? I’ve responded to a few projects and only won one so far and while it does have a lot of international freelancers it doesn’t seem too bad. Am I missing something as no one else has mentioned it, focusing more on elance and odesk?

    To stay on topic I am totally against this move by elance, I often have a lot going on at once on my desktop, and not only is it an invasion of privacy it would mean completely changing the way I work. I wouldn’t work in a worplace where my employer took screenshots of my work, why should freelancing mean even less freedom?

    •, or perhaps contractors they’ve hired to promote them, have tried spamming the comments on this site (and I would guess others) to try to get their link out there. I don’t appreciate having to sort through useless comments that add nothing to a conversation just because people are submitting link spam. So they won’t get any kind of support on this site either.

  19. So, the people who pay for memberships for their site are essentially Elance clients. Can they request screenshots of what the elance management is doing to prove they’re doing what they’re supposed to in order to ensure you’re getting the best service from them? Just a thought.

    Yo, hope everything went well and you recover nicely.

    • Hmmm…

      Well, you are hiring them as a service provider and not just a platform (because they’ve clearly decided that’s not enough for them), and you are working with them through

      Of course they’ll just say it’s optional. It’s nice to be so big people will work with you even when you say “no.” It’s just too bad they can’t grasp the fact that it’s not an “option” for the independent workers who really would be forced to do it or lose gigs.

    • “So, the people who pay for memberships for their site are essentially Elance clients. Can they request screenshots of what the elance management is doing to prove they’re doing what they’re supposed to in order to ensure you’re getting the best service from them? Just a thought.”

      BRILLIANT! 😉

  20. I think this new feature stems from pressures the IRS is putting on businesses to provide benefits to employees (whether 1099 or not) who work over 30 hours/week. I see at Odesk they are beginning to offer health benefits to US workers who meet that minimum.

    At my last job, the company decided to phase out the work-at-home sub-contractor model beginning Jan 1, 09 because of concern with new IRS guidelines about what constitutes an employee. These guidelines were set up to protect workers from employers who were using telecommuting possibilities to stop paying full time employees benefits. Employers could lay off full time workers and then either rehire them as 1099 employees or just replace them with new, non-benefit sub-contractors.

    I understand that this feels like a complete shift in the traditional freelance model, but I think Elance and the US businesses that hire through Elance are responding to pressure from the IRS, and the IRS is responding to the erosion of benefits for information workers capable of telecommuting.

    I think you will find after these models are phased in fully, home workers who log more than 30 hours a week with a single payer will begin to have protections similar to those of full-time employees.

    I’m not defending this, I’m just trying to explain it. If you are in the US, your accountant can better explain the changes in tax law to which Odesk and Elance are responding.

    • Odesk freelancers are NOT eligible for insurance working over 30 hours per week. You have to give up your legal status as an independent contractor and become a w-2 status employee of Odesk, who then attempts to act in a sort of staffing agency role. There was some misleading marketing on their site making it sound like they were offering benefits to freelancers, but they’ve since corrected that. The w-2 status issue is clearly covered on their site. There is nothing wrong with that if a writer actually chooses to give up IC status to become an employee. That’s not the case with Elance and it’s a very BIG difference between that and giving benefits to freelancers. (Also note that Odesk’s invasive software isn’t limited to W-2 status employees — “clients” can also insist on it or weed out contractors if they might refuse). Benefits are not paid to freelancers generally, because doing so puts the buyer at risk of being classified as an employer (which means they have all of the other legal and financial responsibilities I already mentioned).

      It’s never really been legal to simply reclassify an employee as a contractor if they’re doing the same job. That’s why I covered that scenario in the post — you can’t give up employee rights just so an employer can save money; it’s based on behavior rather than you agreeing to something that basically isn’t in your power to agree to.

      So there’s really no way that I can see this being a result of IRS pressure. You’re either an employee or a contractor. You cannot be controlled as an employee if you’re a freelancer. That’s a part of the legal status distinction. Companies like these have no right imo to try to enable such inappropriate control. What they’re doing is actually eroding rights of workers… far worse (again imo) than eroding benefits.

      A home worker working full time for a single company would already generally be classified as an employee, meaning they’re entitled to those perks and rights. It won’t affect legitimate freelancers — by the very definition they do not get the benefits of full-time employees.

  21. I too am very frustrated with this. I would love to hear an attorney’s point of view on this type of tool. I’ve used the site successfully for years but I will not support the use of this tool. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.

    • You’re welcome Sandy. What I’d like even more actually would be for any providers who feel the tool was used by a client in an intrusive way to unjustly control how, when, or where their work was completed to fill out the form mentioned in the post and let the IRS make a final decision in their individual situation. Every situation will vary (just as in traditional employment and contractor relationships). But the real problem here is that Elance and Odesk are making it possible for buyers to cross those lines by putting the tools in their hands.

      (Note: Keep in mind we’re talking about contractors here. My comments aren’t relevant if the worker uses Odesk under their w-2 employee status option, in which case Odesk can require them to agree to more monitoring than a contractor. That said, what I wouldn’t mind an attorney weighing in on is whether even in an employee status that type of software would be acceptable when we’re talking about an employee’s personal computer rather than a company-owned machine given for their use when they work at home.)

      • I’m a long-time freelancer who advertises on I pulled most of my clients (and my loyalty) from the site during the last major provider migration – Fall of 2007. As it stands, the leads on Elance are beyond insulting and the new providers are completely unqualified because membership is now free to anyone – worldwide. Does the company address lead quality, advertiser quality or saturation? No, they spend god-knows-how-much money creating another tool to push their quality-focused contractors away and ignore the requests of long-term members that built the site in the first place. The company will undoubtedly go out of business. Based on lead quality, it already is Craigslist – and membership is free to boot.

        I’ve also reported to the IRS and the FTC multiple times since they changed their Terms of Use to allow for part-time and full-time jobs. Prior to 2007, those such jobs were pulled. Contacting the company, customer service informed me that Elance does now allow full-time and part-time jobs through the site as long as they receive their commission. Now they will allow those full-time and part-time job positions, as they call them, to include employer monitored.

        Whether optional or not, enabling companies, or “employers” as they call them, with the tools needed to work below federal government radar and avoid social security taxes, vacation and sick leave, health insurance, 401K and retirement benefits and unemployment insurance is unacceptable. Elance itself has hired several providers as independent contractors on a near full-time basis only to cut them off cold with no unemployment or severance pay – and most likely no notice – when an actual full-time permanent employee was hired.

        Legal or not, this is beyond incredibly unethical. I do not give my money freely to unethical companies. I am a company of one, not an employee. I agree wholeheartedly with everything I’ve read on this thread.

        Thank you!

        • If they’re directly calling them employers on-site, then they’re actually making my case for me. Go figure. There really is a legal difference between employers and clients. It really shouldn’t be this difficult. And it’s no wonder so many new freelancers don’t understand their rights and such when companies say incredibly confusing things like that.

          Unethical? I agree with that assessment. As I mentioned before, I don’t think it was done with any malice but rather good intentions. But good intentions are not enough to make up for the end results on this one.

  22. If I spend 2 hours on the project and the actual writing part was only 45 minutes, would I have to fight to get the pay I deserved, since I wouldn’t really be able to prove that I worked off-computer?

    Very good point. Lots of good points here. All the rush-to-ruin sites are on my er, _hitlist. Elance is just one. I am creeped out by computers giving access to the inside of my house as it is. I know that sounds paranoid. But have you ever had a repair person operate your computer remotely–very creepy. And what about other client work–some of that may be confidential and these twits could look in on it. I am so encouraged by your willingness to educate clients about what the writer brings to the relationship–everything we provide. Yet someone always wants to handcuff our wrists to the oars, don’t they? First it was indemnity clauses–now they are going techy!

    • You might have to fight or you might not. You would still be able to invoice the time. But it wouldn’t be guaranteed. And if the buyer asked for guaranteed hours (meaning monitoring) and you’re invoicing hours beyond that monitored time, I could certainly see the potential for more disputes regarding that additional time. Either way, contractors cannot technically opt into employer/employee relationship statuses while still being treated as contractors in the sense of covering the taxes, full expenses, etc. Fortunately their status isn’t something they can just sign away.

      As for making sure they’re not seeing something they shouldn’t be… apparently contractors have to waste more time with repeated starting and pausing of the system if they opt to take part (or feel pressured to because they know they won’t get the gig if they don’t — again, possible coercion negates any argument that it’s truly “optional”). And you have to take the time to go in and delete screenshots that aren’t relevant. More wasted time. And more potential for a slip up leading to a serious invasion of privacy (and as you note, not just your privacy but potentially the privacy of your other clients who might have you under nondisclosures and such). I find the whole thing downright scary.

    • This is just the start. Odesk’s service is even more intrusive, and I’ll be tackling that (again) next week. And after that we’ll be taking on Google about a completely unrelated issue, but one that’s a much broader problem. I’m not exactly known for sitting back and taking shit; not as a professional and not as a consumer. And I think more people need to start holding these companies accountable for their hypocrisies and poor decisions. Better to take on the issues now than after even more companies jump on board with similar programs.

  23. Thank you for making me aware of this change at Elance. Jennifer. I have canceled my paid account at the site, and made management aware of why I did so. Many of the points you raised with this excellent post are dead-on when it comes to considering the balance between Employee and Independent Contractor from a Canadian employment and tax law perspective. I am not willing to operate inside this new structure and take that type of legal risk with my own business.

    In addition, I am not interested in altering my own business model to the degree required to participate in this new Elance feature. The site has made several questionable decisions over the past year, and it is unfortunate that what was once a good resource for freelance writers is now no longer something I can recommend to others.

    • Thanks for weighing in Benjamin. I won’t pretend to know anything at all about Canadian employment law, but it’s good to hear from some of our neighbors to the north. Do you happen to have links to government agencies there that deal with Canadians’ legal employment status? That might be something other freelancers in Canada would like to take a look at to see whether or not the tool could potentially impact them similarly.

      • It is obviously a complicated issue, but freelancers can start here:

        Human Resources and Skills Development Canada –

        Canada Revenue Agency –

        And if they live in Quebec, like I do, here:

        Revenu Quebec (not a typo) –

  24. I’m not an author, so I don’t have a horse in this race. Tho’, perhaps because I otherwise freelance–as a book designer and layout artist–I do. Anyway, don’t you see how eLance and the whole slew of “meat rack” bidding-for-project sites are just a way for you to leapfrog each other backwards to offer work at progressively lower prices? I can’t even see a way to justify beginners using such “services”. You devalue yourself, your work, and the whole of creative work by playing that game.

    Yes, it’s tough out here. And the environment is not for everyone. It’s not enough to be talented. Nor is drive and discipline enough to make up for a lack of talent. Earning a living by doing creative work is not about some airy fairy, schoolkid fantasy of “being creative”. It’s about performing a job over and over again. Part of that is not selling yourself, your art, and your fellow artists out.

    Good riddance to eLance. It should be boycotted, along with all the other meat racks.

    • I haven’t used a bidding site in years, and don’t generally recommend them as a whole. Unfortunately though, because so few high paying jobs are advertised publicly anywhere (they’re filled through things like private referrals), some buyers do turn to these sites. Fortunately they’re not all bottom-feeders. There is one way to successfully use bidding sites without ever giving in to that race to the bottom mentality — you set your rates like any freelancers would, you bid those rates, and you stick to them. Those who are able to demonstrate real value (which is very different than low price) can still land lucrative gigs. However, I’d say it’s not a terribly efficient way to find decent paying work, when you can much more quickly manually target businesses for pitches and tap your network for leads, and do so without jumping into a pool of low priced competition.

  25. WTF? “It means clients get to view a stream of your work as it’s completed — they know when you’re working, whether you’re there at your computer or not working on their project, etc. by feeding them screenshots.”

    This is totally over the top. No way would I allow a snooping app to take screenshots of my Mac while I’m working. I’ve got a 30 inch Cinema screen, and I’m usually working on three or four projects at any one time, with many documents open (some of which are clients’ proprietary material) — there’s no way to guarantee client confidentiality if you allow this nonsense.

    As you’ve pointed out Jenn — this definitely assumes an employer/ employee relationship, which is a no-no in outsourcing; when a business employs you, they pay a premium for that, and have obligations.

    If an Australian outsourcing company decided to do this, I’d report them to the ATO (Australian tax office) as fast as I could type. Direct supervision (which is what snooping is) portrays an employee relationship, not that of an independent contractor. In Australia that would trigger all sorts of nasties for the employer, including payroll tax.

    (Sigh) What a pain in the rear. I’ve been recommending Elance (and oDesk) to my beginning writing students to get testimonials quickly, but from now on I’ll no longer do so. This is unprofessional behavior, and shows that these companies have no clue.

    Many kudos on the article, Jenn: it’s well reasoned and presented.

    • Your point about the monitor is an excellent one Angela! I work on three different monitors (sometimes four if I hook up the tv in that room for more viewable area). I spread out my research wherever needed. I type on another. Sometimes I run it all through one machine, and sometimes I split them between the laptop and desktop depending on where I prefer to type that day. No single solution works from one project to the next. It’s how I work more productively. And in no way should I be potentially penalized because I’m not typing on a primary monitor for any given project.

      And thanks for mentioning the appropriate organization Australian contractors might want to check with about legal worker status. Again, I’m only familiar with US rules and regulations; not those elsewhere. That’s what’s great about having an international audience though. You’re all able to help fill in the blanks with resources that could help other readers. 🙂

  26. imnsho, Elance was already a bad deal.

    example, if I understand their set up correctly, one even has to pay Elance to find out more information about a contract from the prospective client on the other side of the Elance iron curtain (sic).

    an impoverished person has little chance of getting work from Elance because she/he gets so little “free” Elance currency that only a job worth $500 or less can be bid upon. To get extra tokens to bid on other jobs, one is forced to become an Elance member. That’s what I recall from my previous research into Elance.

    My conclusion: Elance is a good deal for Elance and may be a good deal for the hiring person/company. For people in countries where the standard of living is low, Elance could be a good deal if one gets enough work. For those of us in first world countries, unless we sub-contract to workers in third world countries and/or have off the shelf solutions, Elance is in no way worth our time. YMMV.

    Gerry (Lowry)

    • As far as I know, you don’t have to pay them to view the full job listings. The information is available as long as you’re registered (which you can do for free). Because we used to consider some of their better advertised gigs for our professional listings here, I’ve kept that account so I could view the details before any were posted. There might be some only visible to paying members, but I haven’t come across it if that’s the case.

      Or maybe you mean you have to be a paying member to contact the job poster? That’s a possibility. Again, I can’t confirm or deny though. I don’t get work there (very happy about that fact right now).

      • Hi Jennifer, let me clarify. It’s possible that even unregistered can see all of the job offerings. However, to bid, one must a least be registered. Unless it has changed, the free registration gave one about five tokens. A four hundred US$ job might take three tokens. However, if one required more information before bidding, just to get that information might also require three tokens. In which case it worked out that one would not have enough tokens left over to actually bid on the US$400 job. Likewise, if one simply bid, there were not enough free tokens to stay at the top of the bidding list. A few people, one assumes first come first served, can pay extra Elance tokens to stay at the top of the list for a given contract. Otherwise one’s bid just floats further and further away from the top of the Elance list down into oblivion. This makes the free accounts almost useless.

        Bottom line it seems to me is that one must pay substantially just to bid and bid very low just to win Elance business. People in third world countries can afford to low ball Elance contracts because their cost of living is much lower. E.g.: this Wired article:

        Regards ~~ Gerry

        P.S.: thank you for writing this fine article. I’d add that if the client really needs to watch the contractor at work then the client has far to much time on her/his side and ought consider an alternate career such as being a guard at a federal prison or perhaps oversee a chain gang.

        • Re: clients having too much time on their hands if they can monitor workers like this…

          LOL I said the same thing a while back regarding Odesk’s BS tools along these lines.

          I’ll have to look into the “token” issue. Clearly we won’t be promoting jobs from Elance anymore regardless because of this latest crap. But I’ll be interested to see if this is really as much of a “pay to play” scenario as it sounds from your comment. If that’s the case, let me officially apologize to AFW readers for any previous job listings included from that source. While we work hard to find decent paying jobs rather than assembling anything and everything we can get our grubby little mitts on, there’s no excuse for promoting that kind of system. Next week I’ll be sure to look into that more and make sure all team members are aware of the outcome so we don’t further promote these things.

        • P.P.S.: the only way to get extra tokens required to have any chance of winning a bid is to become a paying member AFAIK.

        • It takes one ‘token’ or ‘connect’ to bid on a job between $50 and $500. A free membership gives you 10 ‘connects’ per month. You do not need to pay to bid.

          There is also a free message board – that is public – with each project that allows members to ask questions prior to bidding. No connects required.

          • The “free” public message board on jobs is only available to those with paying memberships. With the ever decreasing quality of “leads,” a paid membership becomes less and less attractive.

            Elance takes 2.75% as a “fee” plus an additional 4-6% commission (4% for those with a certain level of lifetime earnings). So the average freelancer is giving Elance an 8.75% cut.

          • Another good point. If you’re getting decreasing quality leads, then it doesn’t make sense to pay more. There are plenty of free resources to help you find and land better gigs anyway.

  27. As a U.S. user of the Elance system, I can tell you that to bid on a gig of $500 or less it only takes 1 topken (or whatever they call it). You can score gigs without a free membership (and you do not have t pay to put your bid “on top” in order to get gigs–I have never put my bid :on top:).

    With that said, your chances of winning a bid are better if you bid on more gigs, and that can require buying more tokens.

    • Hi Yolander, the pricing table is here:

      While I could be wrong, my best guess when there are hundreds of bids is that it is better to be frozen on top than to be floating to the bottom. The exception may be if one happens to be bidding exceptionally low assuming that the “employer” is willing to dig down through the morass to filter the lowest bidders. I’m guessing that most North American freelancers can not afford to work for below minimum wage. At the same time, the free account gets only 10 “Market place Connects”, i.e., bidding tokens, gambling chips, whatever one might want to call them. $10 per month gets the freelancer 25 tokens.

      I just looked at a job in the $10 000 to $25 000 range. That would be the only job this month that I could bid as a free member. To be at the top of the list is 16 tokens, otherwise it is eight.

      “Note: Asking a “Prebid” question will require the same number of Connects as a proposal. (No additional Connects are required however, when you submit a follow-up proposal.) ” … which basically means once one has asked the question, one might follow up with the bid for no extra charge. The problem is in information technology, one generally needs “pre bid” information in order to avoid losing one’s shirt.

      Disclaimer: I have not looked at Elance for a while. There may be fewer people bidding for Elance jobs so it may be less necessary to lock one’s bid at the top. That said, a couple of website desigh jobs had 20 or more bids. One employer wanted a 10 to 15 page website for $500 or less. At 10 pages, that’s only $50 per page. However, the low bidder is currently under $250 or $25 per page. I think Elance keeps 2.75%, not too hefty if one actually makes some money.

      Bottom line: it looks like one might bid 10 one token jobs per month without paying Elance anything. Assume one wins 10% of her/his bids at the $250 mark, then one can earn $250 per month, i.e., $3000 per year. Once one starts purchasing Elance tokens and bidding lots of jobs, then success rate may go up. Take the example of $10 per members who get 25 tokens per month. Let’s assume that an average of 10 persons bid on each job. With 25 tokens, one might average 2.5 jobs per month, $625 per month, $7500 per year. It seems that some people may be earning $60 000 per year while others are earning less than $200 per year (based on six month average reported by Elance). So maybe it’s possible to earn a living with Elance as one’s middle person. Or maybe not. The one thing that is clear is that is appears to be a money maker for Elance.

      • It sounds like the token / connect issue is a completely separate one from the main issue with Elance here, but definitely a complicated one. Hopefully any new providers looking to use them will thoroughly research that and make sure they’re clear on the rules first. 🙂

    • Responding to more gigs would assume there were decent gigs to land. Where I used to find four to five per page on Elance that fit standard industry rates, I now find it hard to locate even one per day.

      Take a look at the demands, “budgets” and deliverables on Elance gigs. All of the top-earning advertisers are virtual “companies” – even in writing – who charge $5 per hour. They have to be outsourcing offshore. There is no way that much work could possibly be completed by one person with any sort of thought or quality. Qualified designers don’t even respond to logo projects anymore. Qualified writers don’t respond to article or editing posts.

      Elance is not what it used to be pre-2007. It’s worthless. Where do small to mid-sized companies go now to find professional designers and writers? – Not the in-between job “freelancers” desperate for a temporary extra buck but the real freelancers they can come back to even after the recession ends and jobs abound… professionals they can rely on 10 years from now?

      Elance used to be valuable because it connected independent freelancers – who had limited resources as opposed to ad agencies – with established small to mid-sized businesses. Now it connects unemployed people with temp jobs offered by employers too cheap to pay benefits. Hourly fees have dropped from about $100 per hour three years ago to about $5 an hour now.

      • When we’re looking for decent gigs there for the listings here, what we do is sort by price. It’s not a perfect solution, but it helps us weed out the rock bottom garbage much more quickly. While there are some good gigs there, you’re right in that there aren’t many — not compared to the larger whole at least.

        One thing I’ve always found disturbing about these sites is how they sometimes rank or rate providers. It seems as though it would be much easier for a lousy writer to get great feedback than a solid professional. Here’s what I mean…. A lot of non-native English speakers wouldn’t know a good article if they saw it (not in English at least). And that’s not really their fault. After all, it’s why they trust a writer to produce the content instead of trying to do it themselves. But these are also often clients with very low budgets (sometimes because they aren’t properly financed for a project, and sometimes just because they haven’t learned the hard way yet — those ones do eventually start paying more for pros). As long as they get the articles they ordered, and they can pretty much understand them, they’ll give a positive rating to the provider… even if the articles are actually crap, rewrites, or basically ripped material.

        When you charge next to nothing, it’s easy to get gigs in higher quantities than a professional taking on higher paying work (and naturally needing to take on much less of it). That means a higher quantity of positive feedback, whether or not the work itself really deserved it. I find that logic baffling and downright disturbing.

  28. Funny story – I haven’t touched Elance for years and then decided to play with my free account a bit to see if I could drum up something nice. With one bid I landed a nice PR job. Less than twenty-four hours later Jenn told me about this new feature. I’m committed to this first job and will absolutely finish up the project on the Elance system. And then I won’t touch them again until this is straightened out.

    I’ve lived my Office Space (no, really!) and had my computer screen watched over cubicle walls all day every day by a weird boss (yeah……) to be sure I was working hard for eight hours on a job that took fifteen minutes to do. I quit that job. Today I’m queen of my own classroom, I’m queen of this household of men, and by-George, I’m queen of my own damn company.

    • I was lucky. Before I went into business for myself, my bosses actually allowed me a lot of freedom. In one case it was more of an on-my-feet job (visual marketing work in retail) and then when I went to the nonprofit world I went right to having my own office to work in. And if I didn’t have a hovering boss then, I sure as hell won’t put up with hovering clients now.

      I love my clients. But to be frank, if any of them ever pushed to implement this kind of tool either I’d leave them immediately or I’d file that SS-8 with the IRS to make sure I wasn’t paying for their privilege to turn into an employer.

  29. I have never been a Freelance writer but I have been a great fun of Angela and the Freelance writing advice she gives. I frankly find the whole thing very interesting and I hope, may be with a little help, to jump into the boat, may be, for starters, just as a hobby.

    I am not completely new to writing as I am a published writer but in hard copies. I also have two blogs where I post some of my writings but mainly relating to my proffession.

    • Best of luck to you if you do decide to jump into freelancing. Just make sure you research markets like these thoroughly before you commit too much time to any one of them in particular. Make sure you’re targeting the right markets at sustainable rate levels, and you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of some others just starting out. 🙂

    • Thanks Jennifer. It seems there are no Freelancers in this part of the world except for hard copy news papers and magazines – and definately that’s not my line of interest. I’ll therefore be most obliged for your and your collegues assistance.

  30. I just took a look at Elance’s user agreement section regarding work view:

    If you look a bit above that, you’ll note a section stating that Elance isn’t responsible for the legality of the deal. Hmmmm. I wonder if that clause holds any water once you create a tool that could potentially put that legality in question. It’s one thing to be hands off when you’re acting as nothing but a platform. It’s something else entirely when you meddle in the actual work process or provide tools that could allow buyers to circumvent their legal and financial responsibilities. Allowing and enabling are two very different things in my view. Not sure how that would officially play out, but it’s something to think about.

    You’ll also find there that providers are required to write up at least one comment per hour to accompany their screenshots. So that’s more time wasted having to send unnecessary progress updates which go right to the fact that this tool enables buyers to evaluate you based on your process rather than the completed job (an employer privilege; not one of clients).

    They also note that the guarantee covers up to 40 hours per week, meaning they’re willing to get involved in much clearer full-time employee / employer relationships while still enabling buyers to essentially claim client status and not take on their responsibilities.

    Here’s the REAL kicker though. True professionals might not be as “guaranteed” as they think.

    “such hourly rate must be consistent with the going rate for the same skills in Provider’s location (such determination to be made in Elance’s sole discretion).”

    Yep. If you charge a reasonable freelance rate as a professional ($100 per hour and even much more is quite normal for many types of freelance writing for example, despite the fact that Elance providers might bid $20 per hour on average), Elance can determine that you’re charging too much in their eyes and only guarantee a portion. They clearly state that decision is up to them. Yet again, if you’re really an independent contractor, you set your rates. If they’re setting your rates for you in any way, I’d argue that puts them in almost an employer-like relationship with you in addition to the deadbeat client who opts not to pay. Did anyone actually think this stuff through???

    Also, there’s no mention of any factors other than location and skill (which basically means the type of work you bid on). Have 10x the credentials of most Elance providers in that skill area in your location? You might get screwed in the deal, because apparently the real rate factors of freelancers aren’t considered.

    This “feature” just keeps looking worse and worse once you really take a good look at it.

  31. If you look a bit above that, you’ll note a section stating that Elance isn’t responsible for the legality of the deal. Hmmmm

    Wonder if a guy who gets caught sticking up a 7-Eleven can use that one. Sorry–not my fault this is illegal–see ya.

    • lol I’d love to see them try.

      It makes complete sense for that kind of detachment when a platform is just a platform. There are laws that protect companies from legal problems resulting from user-generated content. But I’m curious to know how those rules are affected when the site furnishes the tools to potentially help someone get around their legal responsibilities. Not positive one way or the other, but it’s something to think about for sure.

  32. I haven’t used Elance before, and this egregious proposal guarantees that I won’t. Fortunately, my clients would never expect to breathe down my neck while I work. That is truly objectionable. As are the pitifully low rates received by Elancers.

    • I can’t imagine any of my clients pulling a stunt like that either. And that’s the difference between working with serious clients who know what they’re doing when it comes to contracting out work and newer ones or ignorant ones who don’t understand the process and implications of their various actions, and who take cues from sites like this as to what represents the “norm” or proper behavior.

  33. I think it stinks too and I’m glad you called them out on it, Jennifer. I’ve never used elance or any other content mills, but know others who have. I’m going to forward your post onto them.

    • Thanks for stopping by Daniel, and thanks for forwarding it. People definitely need to at least be aware of the potential issues… not just the potential implications of using the tool when it comes to determining worker status, but also the potential implication of not using it. Even by offering it, Elance potentially directly damages the bottom line of users who opt out of the tool if even a single buyer chooses to eliminate providers solely based on that decision.

  34. On a related note, a RentaCoder rep confirmed on Twitter to me that their site does something similar. Given that they don’t really apply to freelance writers, they won’t have their own post on the issue here, but I wanted you to be aware that this is apparently a much bigger problem than 2 sites. To the RentaCoder rep’s credit though, at least they’re dialoging beyond generic “it’s optional” comments with no regard for worker status issues like some others, so I’ll applaud them for that.

  35. Jennifer, Last night in our writers’ chat room, the question was ultimately asked: “If a client said you have to install this (Work View) or you don’t get the job, would you?” All of us said “No.” with 1 exception stating that maybe if they really needed the job and if it was for a lot of money but “what job pays a lot on Elance?” lol Our group consists of aspiring writers/authors, freelancers (writing & editing), authors, and publishers of all ages.

    Most of us brought up the same concerns you mentioned: security of personal info. on computer as well as other clients’ privacy, Elance client hovering over you & micro-managing, as well as discussing why you would be considered an employee rather than an independent contractor. Not everyone understood the difference between an hourly fee and an hourly wage but it was clarified.

    Many of us also stated we do quite a bit of work off of the computer before starting to type and saw potential conflicts about justifying hours if the client doesn’t see you on the computer working. Audrey, since she is also an accountant was very concerned with tax and legal ramifications. I’m concerned with all of it. All of us agreed that this was a very important matter and would spread the word to those who might be new to freelancing to let them know this wasn’t the proper way to do business as a self-employed independent contractor. Thanks for all of the great information and the links. Very helpful. 🙂

  36. If a client wanted me to download a program like this, I think I would explain that it crosses the employee territory and what all that entails before I’d do or say anything. I would think some of them would think twice after that. The ones who don’t… well, I would explain the privacy issues contained with it and decline to work for them. I won’t risk my other client’s privacy for a program like this. But, that’s me.

    It kind of reminds me of the old work at home scams where the company wants you to “apply” to their non-existent job. You’re supposed to download xyz software before they will ever consider interviewing you. And, you have to use their link to download it with. Yes, they would get a certain dollar amount for every download they can con people into while using their links. I’m not saying it’s a scam; it just reminds me of them.

  37. When Work View showed up, I ignored it, since it was optional. I wasn’t interested in downloading spyware to my computer. Next Elance removed the Journal feature for Hourly Jobs. This meant that you now had to download Work View to provide status reports to the client to receive payment your week’s worth of work.

    I wrote a note to customer support asking for the Journal feature to be returned. It was a polite note. At no time has my client requested Work View.

    So much for optional. Elance has now suspended my ability to submit bids for new jobs, although they are still taking my monthly fee for my paid provider account and taking a cut of my hourly on-going job. I believe this was due to my request to have the Journal feature returned, so that Work View would, in fact, be optional.

    This is extremely high-handed, as much as setting up Work View was, in the first place. I would no longer recommend Elance to freelancers. Freelancers pay for the service, but have no voice.

  38. Its funny I have never commented before, on anyones article but I feel compelled to reply to this one. I am a heave elance user (not a provider) and I have been contracting out work for about 3 months now, and about 10k in work (roughly 23 jobs). I feel your article is completely off base.

    1) I have used, and am still using, a freelance designer that does not work hourly, and thus would not use work view, as a freelancer, he gets to CHOOSE this, and I am fine with it because he is a great designer. I would argue that no customer can force an elancer to use work view, its optional. If your work is steller, and you have good portfolio you can stand up for yourself.

    2) Elance provided this tool (in my opinion) for those who have no choice but to hire hourly, I am developing a large scale SaaS application, and it has to be hourly work, and its “coding” not writing, these hours add up and I am thousands of miles away, there are hundreds if not thousands of coders on elance, if a firm wants to do hourly coding but isnt willing to let the customer verify that they are working on their project thats a red flag, just because a provider has tons of positives does not mean that they wont over bill hours to get their average rate up.

    Work View is a great feature, for certain users. If I was a freelance writer, I would tell the elance customer that I do not do hourly work, I would likely do the article or piece on as a bid, incase I got writers block. In addition I would explain that I do not want the customer to see my unedited work, because I would go through several drafts before it was ready to be reveiwed and having someone stand over me while I am trying to be creative is a set back, I can guarantee that customers would understand, and would not mind, and if I am wrong, you just turn the work down and move on.

    To say I am not going to use a system, with 100K plus providers and who knows how many customers, simply because as a writer (or a communicator) you are unable to communicate to your potential customer the drawbacks of that feature for your line of work tells people you might not be a good communicator or a good writer. I dont mean to be negative, but elance isnt forcing anyone to use this feature, Ive done 23 jobs in 3 months (roughly) and only on my big job did I choose to use it, I like the “option” and the freedom to choose.

    This is just my humble opinion.


    PS, I am not a writer, and know my message is likely to have a lot of typos, its 12:30 am and I dont mind if people think my spelling or writing skills suck, truth is they arent the best, but thats not how I make my living.

    • 1. As long as hiring parties can choose to only work with people using Work View, it cannot be truly called optional. Optional would mean it has no place in the hiring decision itself. As the article pointed out anyway, it doesn’t matter if the contractor agrees to use it. That isn’t enough to make it okay based on legal standards — behavior overrides consent.

      2. Whether or not someone has a choice to hire hourly is irrelevant. If they want to hire hourly and they want tracking of those hours, they do have legal options — hire employees. You cannot legally treat contractors in the same way you treat employees. The rights of employers and clients are very, very different.

      3. You could explain it all you want. But as I noted in my other comment, as long as buyers have the ability to insist on it or not hire you, it’s not technically an “optional” feature. And no, you can’t guarantee that customers would understand. If they understood the legal implications, they wouldn’t be using it in the first place. They very clearly do NOT understand, which is why the issue was outlined here. And that’s especially true of international buyers who have no other need to understand the more subtle legal issues of working with freelancers in the U.S.

      4. It has nothing to do with a writer being able to communicate drawbacks. That’s because the drawbacks are largely for the writer. Elance is giving the buyer a way to circumvent their legal status with the person they hire. It’s nearly all in their benefit, while the contractor pays more and gives up legal rights they have as an independent worker. Buyers have no reason to care about such things, especially knowing that the writer’s recourse is to go through the IRS to have a declaration of status made by them, which isn’t something most are going to bother doing, even if they should.

      You’re welcome to like it. But the point (as the IRS itself lays out nicely) is that it doesn’t mean a lick if you like it. Consenting to use it doesn’t make the use fall in line with the legal status you or your buyer’s have. How they choose to use that software is what matters. Nowhere did I say all will use it in a way to circumvent the law. The issue with Elance is that they’re directly handing buyers the ABILITY to get around the law, at the expense of independent workers that make up the backbone of their business model.

    • Josh, you are a professional and purchasing professional services.

      As it is in elance, if the “buyer” elects WorkView, it’s a requirement or the billing is not, for lack of a better word, enforceable. So, it becomes very cloudly. Once a “buyer” has selected it, it cannot be changed without CANCELLING the job and reposting.

      Would you expect an architect, accountant, attorney, or even a secretarial service to agree to WorkView? They almost all charge by the hour for something. These are not industries that have or require “site supervision” as the construction industry does.

      No, they are service businesses. Every provider on elance is supposed to be a business entity, whether it is as a sole proprietor or state-chartered entity. Possibly because it is through the Internet, some seem to think it doesn’t matter. But it does.

      “Buyers” are supposed to be contractors. When they select WorkView, they are moving one step closer to definitely being assessed wage taxes — creating documentation for statement unemployment departments to justify requiring unemployment taxes be paid (add elance’s fee to that!).

      Not only are these writers correct, “Buyers” on elance subject to US tax laws should be objecting even more.

      That is the point.

      Jeannine Silkey

      • I forgot to add, Josh, a flat fee bid can be based on estimated hours, and a rate given for overruns, like federal contracting works. There is really no reason for the elance to have an hourly input. If the providers cannot put in their bids how many hours of work a flat fee covers and if the buyers cannot compute the rate given total proposed fee and estimated hours, they are in the wrong business.

  39. A quick follow up comment to my post, there are high end firms on elance that specialize in coding, they know more about coding that elance itself does, they make the big sites that you see out there, one of the firms I have worked with did stuff for CNN and MSNBC, these firms use work view, and they have way more private data and NDAs to worry about. I can guarrantee if work view was a security risk, they would not use it. Its not a random piece of software (or as some think, spyware) its an advance piece of software, you use antivirus software, and yet I see no one on here saying, I will not install that, its scanning my computer and it could take my private photos and email them to my ex…. (yes it could be made to do that) but lets face it, we trust the antivirus software, why… because its from a reputable company, imagine what would happen to Symantec (Norton Antivirus) if it was discovered they were secretly spying on you. They would be out of business, and this goes for all the big companies… including elance… and elance is even more at risk because they developed the software for “coders to use” these guys would find out faster than you can shake a stick if there was any funny business.

    Paranoia is ok, heck google
    chem trails
    Truth about GMO

    its ok to be very be on alert, but I honestly think that as long as high end firms (hundreds of them) who make a living knowing every aspect of a computer, are willing to use it, then you are highly likely to not be installing some spyware.

    And to someones comment earlier about there aren’t any high paying jobs on elance, well thats simply not true, they didn’t do 250+ MIllion dollars on elance 50 bucks at a time.


    • I think you’re misunderstanding the concern. Spyware has nothing to do with a security issue. It has to do with the software giving companies information they are not legally entitled to have. When it comes to employment issues, they are not legally entitled to “look over the shoulder” of workers in the same way they could if they hired employees. That’s a very big difference, and it’s not an issue of paranoia in the slightest. It’s an issue of legal status for the worker and companies trying to circumvent freelancers’ rights using Elance and similar services’ tools.

      • Jennifer and WriteGal,

        Thanks for the replys.

        I figured someone would think I worked for elance considering I stood up for their system, but that wouldnt be much different than if I came to this blog an accused Jennifer of working for a competing freelance site because she dislikes them, I dont actually think she is doing that, and I do not have _ANY_ affiliation with elance, other than a customer who uses it for outsourcing.

        With that out of the way, let me quickly comment on your polite followups.

        Jen, Often times people feel a certain way, and that feeling is in line with it must not be legal. I doubt though that you have contacted an attorney to check the legal status of elances actions, although I am sure you are being honest in that you dont like them. I am not an attorney either, nor have I contacted one. But to be honest it does not seem to me in the slightest bit illegal.

        The business system they offer is not required, its an option (as a customer of elance I dont have to use them). The employees (or freelancers in your case) are not always in the united states, and payroll taxes ect are not (in my opinion) applicable anyway.

        An employee in Indea, getting 11.00 an hour does not have “legal status” to say “no I dont want to be looked over” They are VERY grateful to have a customer willing to pay them (vs someone else) who even cares to see over their shoulder.

        Many of the firms on elance, especially the once I have used have 100 or more employees, these employers (Im guessing here) are probably just as keen on using as I am. I know if I had 100 employees sitting in a box 10 hours a day I would not be able to keep a close eye on them, and not everyone in every country is as ethical as you or me or other works who are honest, some people in the world are lazy, its just the way it is.

        Its the free choice that you get to leave elance, just like its free choice to use it, just like its free choice to use the Work View, even if a job requires it, you can turn the job down, and if you have “mad” writing skills then its the customers loss. But rather than let it be the customers loss, you choose to make it your loss, but not allowing yourself the opportunity to write for someone like myself, who (on elance) will be hiring writers on a contract basis with no work view, in the coming months. (In the interest of WriteGals comment, feel free to watch I am pretty confident the pages will be written by freelancers. But you dont have a chance at that gravy work because you decided to cut your nose off, despite your face (I only use that analogy in a polite way, no disrespect intended)

        I dont have a desire to fight about this, I saw that you wrote and article explaining your view, and I as a customer see a different angle, one that maybe you might not have notices in your anger over the “potential” lost job when a customer refuses to work any other way.

        Again I think a better approach is to educate some of the elancers (I have read their forums a little, and it seems from the providers posts that ALOT of elance users (customers) are not the brightest bulbs in the pack, and thus it wouldnt be fair to expect them to just “understand” why asking for work view from a writer is a bad idea, I am with you on that. i would NOT use work view if I was a writer, no way. But I would explain to the potential customers why, rather than be pissed at the company. Its not elances fault that a user wants to see your work mid sentence on the first draft.

        Also to writegal, I seriously doubt that elances “monthly fees” account for much of their “earnings” when compared to the commissions on the jobs (the 10%) of course neither of us know the actual numbers but looking at their stats that they make public and you can tell the number of jobs they get is very large, and thus the real money is in the commissions . The fact that they advertise so heavily (all over the web) and draw in such a large customer base is why I find it to be much smarter to take advantage of them.

        I guess in closing I would remind you that elance is a place where freelancers, (AND COMPANIES) can go and find work. There is nearly every type of provider on elance, I used an attorney on elance to file for my TMs, and it only cost me 150 each (plus filing fee) that’s a good price, my normal attorney wanted 2800. So while every tool on their site might not be for “writers” if that was the case the system would also suck. You gotta take the good with the bad, and work around the bad to allow yourself the best outcome. Maybe you are doing that, but I think you missing out on real customers (like myself) over a feature that isnt even intended for freelancers like yourself, again this is just my opinion.


        Same disclaimer as before for my typos =)

        • If you read the post and my comments carefully you’ll see that nowhere did I say that elance’s actions are illegal. That wasn’t even implied. What I did say is that Elance is choosing to provide a tool to buyers that lets those buyers circumvent certain aspects of employment law. I do not have to be a lawyer to know what those things are. In fact I detailed them quite thoroughly in the post, and provided resources to the actual official guidelines on such matters.

          Also I have no anger about potential lost jobs. I do not work through Elance. I have more customers than I can handle and haven’t had to look for new work in quite some time. But I am well versed in employment law issues regarding IC status, and out of concern for my readers who DO use freelance marketplaces to look for work, it’s a part of my job to bring these kinds of issues to light. Elance is not the first company do this. They weren’t the last either. But as of yet not a single company employing these kinds of tools has been able to refute the fact that their tools can be used by buyers to get around the buyer’s legal responsibilities while stripping rights from their contractors. The fall back response is always the same — that it’s optional — and that is a half-truth at best.

          • Fair enough, I wont turn this into more than it needs to be, I was just sharing my opinion.

            I will say that I dont think every provider feels this way. the one job (SaaS application) that I am using work view on I asked the head guy (owner) of the large company in india, if he had any issue with using work view (because I respect my providers opinions) and it was a quick an unequivocal, NO he didnt mind at all.

            As a user of elance it is a tool, I just have to use the right tool for the right job, but I would rather have the tool than not.


          • Unfortunately that’s one of the biggest issues involved in the situation. As the IRS clearly puts it, it doesn’t matter if a provider is okay with it. Even if they consent to using the tool, if the buyer uses it to circumvent the rule the buyer is still legally responsible of the taxes and other things involved (as opposed to the provider — even if they agreed to use). and when some providers act like it’s okay and not a problem, it puts the legal rights of all of the rest of us working from the US in jeopardy.

            And by all means you (and everyone) is welcome to their opinion. This is just a case where how providers feel about it are actually irrelevant to the legality of how buyers can (and may already) use the tool. 😉

        • Josh,

          Let me begin by saying I am not in India. I am a US-based freelancer. My rates are set accordingly. Whether you realize it or not, you have just articulated the larger issue (and I’ll leave my personal feelings on it aside): It would seem that Elance’s business plan is to become a marketplace for outsourcing work, offshore, for bargain-basement prices. Just because you found one provider – a company with 100 subcontractors “sitting in a box 10 hours a day,” as you put it – don’t assume that speaks for the masses.

          Regarding Elance’s monthly fees and its earnings: at this moment Elance boasts 158,252 providers and the minimum monthly membership for providers is $10. You do the math. Many providers pay additionally every month for extra bidding chips, called “connects.” When you compare that with the 50-75% (as reported by many in all categories) of jobs that go unawarded, for which Elance collects no commissions (but keeps those bidding “connects” fees), it is not too difficult to assess where their bread and butter comes from.

          You wrote: “The business system they offer is not required, its an option (as a customer of elance I dont have to use them).” Exactly. It’s “optional” for the buyer; not the provider. And I think you’re failing to see whom is whose “customer.” Providers are Elance’s clients. Buyers are the providers’ clients.

          • And here’s one of the biggest issues — Elance is a US-based company. So what goes on in India matters far less than what goes on here in their back yard. It means they have no excuse whatsoever for being ignorant about these things, and as long as they target US-based providers they need to respect the rules here… not worry about whether or not someone can get around the rules by hiring cheap labor overseas.

    • Josh, it sounds to me like you work for Elance. Really, it does. Make no mistake about it – Elance has provided buyers with a tool (one which they can REQUIRE be used on their project) which facilitates giving them employer status without having to pay the employer taxes they are liable for. And they’re headed for trouble. Of course Elance hasn’t made 250+ million dollars “50 bucks at a time.” They’ve made it off the thousands of freelancers who PAY to bid on projects (many of which seem to be nothing more than fishing expeditions).

      • WriteGal,

        I replied to your message in my previous response, this message is incase you were interested and only checked your email to see if you got a reply.


  40. Just chiming in here. I didn’t have the time to read everything (I apologize), but I’m not particularly offended by Elance or Odesk’s actions. It’s the client’s decision to monitor you heavily or not, and let’s face it, the best of us don’t need to be monitored. If you don’t already have some basis of trust with your client, then it won’t work out in the long run anyway.

    I like tracker because it’s convenient for my clients. They sign up for it and get billed. I doubt any of them actually have the time to check the screenshots. They could, but they like my work and they trust me. It’s no big deal.

    Employer? Client? Isn’t it all the same? It’s someone who wants you to do something for them. If you aren’t comfortable with the way the relationship is going, it’s up to you to go somewhere else. Elance or Odesk are just places to find clients. It’s the relationships you build that matter the most.

    • No. It’s not all the same — not even close. That’s precisely why people should read fully before commenting. It’s a complicated issue with a lot involved, and without knowing those things (which I’ve laid out fairly thoroughly), there’s really no point in commenting.

      It’s the ignorance and acceptance from people who don’t really understand the issue that puts the rest of us at risk of having our rights as independent contractors abused by buyers who think these enabling “tools” mean certain things are okay.

      And it doesn’t matter that the clients ultimately make the decision. In nearly every way these tools can be used, they can be used to circumvent the rules of a client / contractor relationship, putting more cost and fewer rights in workers hands (not something clients can do; they’d have to become employers and take on the cost themselves). So the bigger problem of this specific post is that Elance is making a choice to enable this behavior, and not only do they not seem to care, but their reps who have responded don’t even seem to understand the implications of their own tools, because they can’t say anything but “it’s optional” – which is not completely true.

      If a buyer can require it before making a hiring decision, that’s no longer an option, and it’s an unacceptable form of discrimination that basically says “let me treat you like an employee, but you keep paying all the costs, or I won’t hire you.” As I noted in the post, one of the deciding factors between contractor / employee status is the fact that clients cannot tell contractors what tools they must use to get the job done. That choice is up to contractors. Elance very blatantly lets them get around that point. It’s not solely the monitoring side of it that makes this tool a big problem for freelancers. And that’s when it potentially crosses legal lines. If Elance gave a damn about their workers — you know… the people who pay them — they’d eliminate this tool completely, and they’d do it asap.

  41. Hey Jennifer,

    I returned to this post, and you make some very solid points. I shouldn’t have commented before reading. You’re right. If we aren’t getting the same benefits that regular employees get, then we should at least get our freedom. There should be some point at which being monitored means you are an employee. Even though I doubt that many of my clients even look through the screenshots, the fact that I need to be monitored to do my job is pretty damned childish and unprofessional.

    Plus, I think it shows a lack of respect for the ideation process, something that seems to get no respect on the bidding sites. Even though my screen might not show that I’m doing something worthwhile, I actually am. I’m trying to find a good angle or an idea. If you are more than just a content factory, you’re bound to spend more and more time just thinking up ideas. That is time we all deserve to get paid for.

    I’ll admit that my comments come out of a kind of a naivete. I’m still pretty new to this whole making money as a writer thing. Your blog is a very helpful and engaging read. It’s inspiring me to take things further and get paid more. You have my respect.

    That’s the last time I ever breeze through an article and comment.

    All The Best,
    -Ted Bendixson

  42. Jennifer, you have stated it correctly. I too have become very disgruntled with elance’s policies.

    WorkView is hire for wages, whether elance wants to look at it that way or not. To my way of thing, by implementing WorkView, elance has become a staffing agency, a temporary agency liable for all payroll taxes. It’s NOT self-employment any more.

    Interestingly, on the “Employer requires a Form W-9” only means that the CONTRACTOR (not an employer supposedly) has signed up for elance to complete their Forms 1099 at year-end. It does NOT mean the employer gets a copy of the Form W-9 for their tax records and proper accounting. Furthermore, it’s misleading to the SUBCONTRACTOR (provider) in that EVERY USA CONTRACTOR should be requiring a Form W-9 … not just those using elance’s Form 1099 services. It makes it look like the Contractors are evading the laws when it indicates the W-9 form is not required.

    In the next year or so, I don’t know the new timeline, the IRS will require all payment processors (which previously I elance was and they may still be one) to issue a new type of Form 1099 showing ALL moneys received on behalf of the people the process payments for.

    So, if the Contractor issues its own Forms 1099 and elance issues their NEW TYPE of Form 1099, its going to be a bit of a zoo.

    I’ve pointed out to elance in surveys and by other means that these hourly rates are not appropriate in the way that they have them. They just remind SUBCONTRACTORS (providers) to include their elance fee in the estimate. (Recently, they have added it to all bids–someone’s making headway with them). I’m a professional,

    In determining professional rates, SUBCONTRACTORS need to consider the same things other professionals consider, overhead, marketing (which includes overall time spent analysis “requests for proposals” and completing the proposals), supplies, etc. I’ve not seen that kind of training or information on elance and it should be there in a highly visible “can’t be missed” place.

    I found your forum in my search for good alternatives to elance.

    Thank you for having this forum.

    Jeannine Silkey
    QualityCounts on Elance.

  43. First off, great blog and you picked up real good issues with these virtual work place websites. I agree the snapshot feature is just too much( although optional as they say), but my biggest concern is losing your trade-secret, how we work and what approach we apply is unique to everyone and that’s the reason you are hired at the first place for your expertise, which is directly proportional to your work style/trade-secrets. The idea was to deliver the work with precision and as long as you can deliver it well and to clients satisfaction(whether it took more than anticipated time should be at the clients discretion and can be sought out between client and IC only), where did the need for snap shots emerged. In my opinion it is companies patent race to create monopoly, ignoring the IC’s privacy, employment and moral rights!

  44. I agree, but the issue that most of us face is “if we cant trust the big sites like elance then who can we trust? where do we find the freelance work that allows us to work on our time and enjoy what we do?” at least that’s true for me so if anyone has any tips on where to find freelance writing jobs please shoot me an email

    • You have to be able to trust yourself. Vet individual clients, not large freelance sites. Those sites aren’t set up in your interest. They’re set up in the interest of making their own profit, and their policies very often come down favoring clients rather than service providers.

      I highly encourage you to spend a bit of time browsing the archives here. I’ve provided a lot of advice over the years that will help writers attract the best clients. In other words, I explain how to make them come to you instead of the other way around. That’s how I operate completely now, and I have for several years. I would only query at this point if I desperately wanted to work for a company or if I decided a publication’s byline was worthwhile from a marketing angle (in which case it would come out of my marketing time rather than my usual billable hours).

      Even if you’re not yet ready to do something like that, go ahead and send direct queries. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Or make some cold calls if you want to work with businesses rather than publications. One of the biggest mistakes newer writers make is assuming there even is a “where.” That’s not the right question. The right question is “how can you find better gigs,” and there is a ton of information on that in the archives for you. If you’re more interested in the querying route, I highly recommend Lori Widmer’s site, — she would be a great person to reach out to about queries and letters of introductions. 🙂

  45. I use elance frequently for what it (most likely) was founded on — hiring programmers.

    I now exclusively use WorkView and would never hire someone for software development without it or something like it. Some of the “oops” I have caught and avoided by looking closely at the WorkView screens submitted to me for billing are:

    – Being charged for “leisure” activities.
    – Being charged for work on other clients work.
    – Having my work shared among multiple freelancers on a “team” when I’ve specifically asked to work with an individual (this is for purposes of NDA applicability among other things)
    – Having login credentials to my development environments shared with said unauthorized “team members”. (security issue).
    – Knowing when my freelancer is in over their head (aka being charged for more how-to and code example googling time than actual development).

    This last one is a big one for me. I pay freelancers for their (typically overly) stated skills. I don’t pay freelancing professionals for education that isn’t exclusively for my work. Example – if I am asking for a stock market app using a specific vendors API — I expect to pay for some research time into using the API, but not the basics of how to use CodeIgniter if you’ve told me your very familiar with CI in the intro.

    • It sounds like you’re a great candidate for hiring temporary employees so you have the right to monitor what they’re doing more closely and can work in more traditional hourly wage environments. I can’t help but wonder if some of those problems are a direct result of resorting to sites like Elance for contractors in the first place. People who need to be babysat aren’t professionals. If those were the types of people I was finding on Elance or any other freelance marketplace, I’d have some serious decisions to make about my hiring practices. Best of luck finding someone who’s a better fit for your business in the future.

  46. Hi Jennifer, what’s your thought about Upwork? since oDesk rebranded To accelerate hiring, and Better collaboration.

    • Same company, same history of treating freelancers badly. I wouldn’t touch anything they’re involved in. And a rebranding does nothing to solve underlying problems. If anything, they’ve introduced new issues in favor of clients that put freelancers in an unacceptable position.

      Their new live chat tool is designed to make it easier for clients to find freelancers who are willing to talk and start working immediately. It’s akin to clients demanding that freelancers be available via instant messenger services whenever they want, or threatening to go elsewhere. Let them.

      Freelancers are business owners. They are not employees. And they should not be asked to be at the beck and call of any client (or worse, prospect). This is right in line with their Work View crap, providing tools that make it easier for clients to cross legal lines in how much control they can exercise over independent contractors.

      And honestly, only completely ignorant clients are likely to buy into the hype. The freelancers who are available immediately to drop everything and chat with you and start on your project aren’t already busy for a reason. The best freelancers are usually booked well in advance. They don’t sit around waiting for a live chat and immediate work. It’s all about instant gratification rather than improving the quality of the jobs and services found there. Yet again, a bad deal for freelance professionals.

  47. I must say this is one of the most useful posts that I have read today. How I wish I had come across it earlier. I really admire the way that you have arranged your thoughts and thanks for sharing that information. It’s all our dream to have a freelance market where both clients and service providers interact in a mutual relation without necessarily having one group exploit the other.

    • Thanks Newton. Unfortunately that’s an issue we find with all bid-style marketplaces. Clients are essentially pit against freelancers in some way (on top of freelancers often being sucked into a “race to the bottom” with their fellow freelancers). But thankfully there are other, better ways to find clients. 🙂


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