By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
But it's the newly opened Freelancers Medical Center in downtown Brooklyn, created in partnership with Collective Primary Care, that is the most tangible symbol of the union's importance—and how much more powerful it could become.
Offering acupuncture, meditation, and yoga alongside free doctor visits, the center doesn't look like much from the outside. It sits on a particularly noisy stretch of Jay Street, just next door to a wig shop selling black and blond lace-fronts made from human hair. But inside, it's tricked out with Scandinavian-style furniture in a Feng Shui–observant layout, with shiny plants in the appropriate corners. It's built for the modern, anxious, depression-prone freelancer; for the New Yorker who likes her medical care personalized, her textiles modern, and her Qi channels unobstructed.
It's almost silent in the room reserved for classes until there's a sudden cry from the instructor: "Oh my God, shoes in the yoga studio? You guys!" But even after a breach of etiquette, this place is a sanctuary compared to the city's typically grotty, soul-crushing waiting rooms. "It's this amazing thing," says Horowitz, padding through the airy space. "But what's really amazing is that it never could have happened if people didn't come together." She means it quite literally: When the center opened, the team was hoping to recruit 3,000 people over the course of 18 months; they got 2,000 in less than four weeks. Union members don't pay annual dues—they pay for the insurance tier of their choice (starting at $225 a month for an individual "value" plan with a $10,000 deductible and rising to $1,600 a month for a family with a $1,500 deductible). Members can see primary-care doctors here without a co-pay and without extra fees for routine blood work.
"I can't ever remember having insurance I was happy with," Pam Benson, a freelance writer who is a fan of the medical director Dr. Neil Patel and the nurse practitioners, and also of the ur-Brooklyn extras like acupuncture. "But so far, so good." She's been a Freelancers Union member since it was founded.
Another patient approaches Horowitz in the lobby, gushing about how much he loves the place, how good it feels to be treated "like a human being" at a doctor's office. But like everyone else in New York, this guy's worried that if too many people learn about the thing he loves, it'll be ruined. He wants to keep the center a secret. Horowitz listens, nods gently, and later explains that the beauty of a self-sustaining model is that if it's successful, you can just build another one. "This isn't set up to be, like, some exclusive little gym," she says. It's a model that scales, and Horowitz is already looking at three other cities where she plans to open similar centers over the next two years.
By tapping into the cooperative spirit of what Horowitz calls "new mutualism"—the kind of hippie-industrial values driving big businesses like Kickstarter and Etsy—Freelancers Union has emerged as something the rest of the country can learn from. Now the union is helping other groups' projects take off. Last year, it sponsored independent nonprofits in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon and won them federal loans totaling $340 million. Those co-op plans will start their enrollment this fall, with benefits kicking in by January 2014. "You shouldn't have to be a do-gooder to understand this," says Horowitz. "This should just be rational."
When Horowitz was in fifth grade, civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin came and spoke to her class at the Brooklyn Friends school. She doesn't remember much about what he said that day, but Rustin's portrait hangs in her Dumbo office, next to Hillman's and Eleanor Roosevelt's, and alongside paintings by Horowitz's daughter. The workspace looks more like a well-funded tech startup than an insurance company, with a high ceiling and an open floor plan, that makes for an unusually warm and buzzy environment. Brainy German board games clutter the lounge and employees gather in small groups around the room. Wherever the eye falls there's some sort of meeting or brainstorming session going on, conjuring the company's beehive-themed ad campaigns.
On a recent afternoon, the team was working on solutions for affordable talk therapy, and studying micro-finance models to help freelancers save—and grow—their money. "Traditionally, the financial-services industry doesn't want to do business with this group, because it's just not enough money for them," says Horowitz. "But there's so much more power as a group than as individuals. We can figure out a more sophisticated way for freelancers to use their money."
Freelancers are constantly falling into debt early in their careers, loading up their credit cards to get by between projects or as they wait for checks from deadbeat clients. Horowitz thinks every worker should be able to squirrel away at least $5,000 for emergencies—the kind of relentless practicality that she's built her career on. But The Freelancer's Bible, blurbed by Tina Brown, goes beyond career-building advice on the finer points of networking and pitching and heads into squishier Oprah territory about being satisfied and fulfilled as a human being, finding communities, and forming brain trusts. Since its release in October, the book has sold over 3,000 copies.