Guide to Laws for Freelancers, Gig Workers, and Independent Contractors in the U.S.

If you are a freelancer (aka independent contractor, self-employed, subcontractor, contract worker, gig worker, consultant, etc.), you are essentially your own small business. So, generally the law treats you as a business, not as an employee. This means employment laws generally don’t apply to you (unless the hiring party is misclassifying you as an independent contractor – see below). But business laws usually do apply.

Here we present the laws that apply across the United States. There also may be additional laws for freelancers in your state or city. See our Legal Guides for Freelancers in California, and New York State.

Also be sure to check out our Resources for Freelancers.

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1. General

How do I know which laws apply to me? Is it based on where the client is or where I am?

Laws related to freelancers generally apply based on the freelancer’s location, but they may also apply based on where your clients/hiring parties operate.

So for example, if you live in New York City, which has the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, you can benefit from the protections of this law. Los Angeles recently passed its own Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which only applies when both the freelancer and client are located within the city.

If you live in California, your clients (and thus you) are subject to the new AB5 Gig Worker Law, regardless of where the client is based.

Beyond specific laws such as these, you can specify which jurisdiction to be subject to by stipulating it in your contract with the client.

2. Independent contractor status

How do I know if I am a freelancer/independent contractor?

Determining whether you are an independent contractor (aka freelancer) is sometimes complex, and you may want to get an employment lawyer if you are unsure. Many employers misclassify (whether intentionally or not) employees as independent contractors to avoid paying certain taxes and other benefits. The category you fit into has implications as to the laws that apply, as you will see below.

Here’s what you need to know about freelancer vs employee status.

3. Employment Laws & Freelancers

Do employment laws apply to freelancers?

Generally, no. Freelancers are treated as a business, so business laws apply. Thus employment law does not apply, unless a freelancer is “misclassified” and should be an employee under the standards above.

However, there are minor exceptions in some states or cities. New York City provides that employment discrimination and gender-based harassment apply to freelancers and independent contractors the same as employees.1NYC Admin Code Sec 8-102 California law says that sexual harassment applies to freelancers.2CA Govt Code Sec 12940(j)

Do wage and hour laws apply to freelancers?

Wage and Hour laws generally do NOT apply to freelancers, only to employees.3The National Labor Relations Act (29 USC Secs. 151–169) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 USC Secs. 201–219) do not apply.

4. Contracts

What do freelancers need to know about contracts?

One of the most essential things for freelancers is to have solid contracts: for your clients, vendors, and subcontractors. See more about contracts and agreements.

What do I do if the other party violated our contract?

See our Guide to Enforcing Contracts.

5. Payment issues

Help! My client isn’t paying my fees. What do I do?

Most likely this would involve a breach of contract, even if you don’t have a formal written agreement. See our Guide to Enforcing Contracts.

Also, some cities are adopting new protections for non-payment of freelancers. As of March 2023, the following cities have passed some version of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act: New York City and Los Angeles.

6. Business Stuff

What do freelancers need to know about business?

As mentioned above, freelancers are essentially their own business, whether you know it or not. Thus you need to comply with the business laws and regulations.

7. Taxes & filings

See our Guide to Taxes for Freelancers.

8. Intellectual property

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is any creative work, such as writing, art, design, inventions, etc. See our Guide to Intellectual Property.

What are my intellectual property rights as a freelancer?

Most work done by freelancers (writing, art, design, etc.) falls under “copyright.” If you are doing such work for a client and you have not signed a contract stating that the copyright belongs to the client (“work for hire”), then the copyright by default belongs to you, NOT the client (see Copyright for full explanation).

9. Additional Freelancer Laws in Your State/City

There may be other laws for freelancers specific to your state, city or county.

There is much happening in this space, as many cities and states are passing new laws protecting freelancers. As of June 2023, New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Columbus have passed protections for freelancers, generally requiring companies hiring freelancers to use a written contract and increasing penalties for violating the contract. These are predominantly based on the Freelance Isn’t Free concept advocated by the Freelancers Union.

Check out our Laws for Freelancers in New York, and California laws for freelancers.


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