There are countless discussions about working for free in the photo industry and many points both for and against the practice. This is here is not a debate on the ethics of “hiring” someone for free or the dilemma of portfolio-building that most every newcomer faces. This is about how bringing someone along on a shoot without pay can screw over your business.
While trolling Reddit, I stumbled across a post by a sincere photographer new to the game who was offering to work as a second shooter without pay. At first, I was struck with admiration for someone who is so willing to “pay their dues.” In today’s world of self-entitlement, it is refreshing to see humility like this. However, my next thought overruled it: “How dangerous could this be to me as a photography business owner?”
Now, don’t get me wrong…I still admire the original poster. But there are a few caveats that should make a professional think twice before taking them up on their offer. It’s just bad business.
Why You Shouldn’t Hire Someone For Free
Again, we’re not talking about the ethics so often debated on this topic.
There’s a bit of a catch-22 here, if you will. First off, bringing someone along who is not an employee or principal of your photography business (however you may have it legally structured) is not a wise idea because of liability. Anyone who you choose to have show up with you will automatically be lumped in with your business entity by the client and people on set. But, you insurance company won’t see it that way. If something goes wrong and your “budget-friendly” assistant burns a house down, your liability coverage will not extend to them because they are not a company employee.
When trying to file a claim for the hypothetical house burning, the conversation with your insurance rep would pretty much go like this:
YOU: Hello, I need to file a liability claim. My assistant burned down the 300-year-old mansion we were shooting in.
REP: Wow, that sucks, but I’d be more than happy to help you file your claim. Now, is your assistant an employee of your company?
YOU: No, they were just helping out.
REP: Oh…well, we can’t cover them under your policy then. Do they have their own liability coverage policy?
YOU: No, I don’t think so.
REP: Then I am VERY sorry. Have a nice day!
What happens next is the owners of the mansion (or their insurance company) sues your business for damages. But, since your insurance company has denied the claim (and rightfully so), you are on the hook for the bill. If you are a sole proprietor, this means the end of the life as you know it. If your business is formed as an LLC or cooperation, you might get away personally, but it would most assuredly mean bankruptcy…not to mention possible followup lawsuits against you as the business owner for having negligently allowed someone under your oversight to burn a place down without proper coverage.
In the U.S., there is no law that says a person cannot help someone out for free. I’m certain someone’s tried to pass one somewhere, but there’s nothing on the books. But, let’s say you hired this person to second shoot a wedding for free. You also wanted to make sure that they were covered under your liability policy. You would need to:
- Setup company payroll the right way (if you haven’t already)
- Take out a workers compensation policy (required in most states for any employees)
- Put the second-shooter on your payroll
- Pay them at least minimum wage
Failing to do so, while classifying them as an employee for the sake of your insurance coverage, is a violation of employment law (and fraud)…and would most assuredly be discovered during any claims investigation your insurance company may conduct. If it’s discovered, it would probably be reported to your state’s Department of Labor. When the DoL comes knocking, and you reject the notion that you had an employee working for less than minimum wage without workers compensation coverage in place, your insurance company would fire you in a heartbeat.
See how you’re screwed either way?
Breaking It Down
Sure, it might seem a little redundant, but here is the bottom line: You can’t hire an assistant for free without jeopardizing your business in one way or another.
- Anybody who is not an employee or principal of the company is not covered under your liability policy (and specifics vary by provider).
- For someone to be covered they must be an employee (or a principal, but we’re probably not interested in giving away ownership rights). To be classified as an employee, there are certain obligations that you, as the business owner, must meet.
- If they are still dead set on working for free, they can purchase their own liability coverage and come along as a no-pay subcontractor.
“But, I have a friend whose daughter is really interested in what I do and wants to tag along on a few shoots to just observe.” In that case, all I can recommend is talking with your insurance provider or legal counsel to see if it’s okay…or make sure to get the tagalong to sign a liability waiver.
Can you get away with it from a practical standpoint? Most of the time, sure…and it can seem like a lot of hassle, especially for those just starting out. But peace of mind is worth far more than gold.
Have I ever…?
Yes, I have “hired” assistants who either weren’t payroll employees or who were volunteering to work for free…and it was foolish of me. But, most times it happened just out of pure ignorance on my part, which is exactly what this post is aimed to remedy in your own life.
In the end, the last thing you want to do is risk your business or personal finances by not having your ducks in a row. For a more detailed look at the (somewhat) simple process of hiring on an official employee, check out my more detailed write-up here.