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Fashioning a Response: Results from the Model Alliance COVID-19 Survey

“[I’m concerned about] dying without health insurance.” - Respondent, Model Alliance COVID-19 Survey

The coronavirus pandemic has attacked the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the US and generated acute economic stress for millions more. As workers across the country walk out of their jobs at Amazon, Instacart, and more to protest unsafe working conditions, millions more are at home wondering where their next paycheck will come from. Workers in creative industries, whose work was already precarious, are facing an uncertain future and problems that already existed are being exacerbated.

Models frequently confront structural problems, including wage theft and sexual harassment, unhealthy working conditions, use of child labor with limited protections, and lack of protections allowing them to seek recourse for unfair treatment. As the COVID- 19 crisis deepens, models are facing financial distress with little or no safety net. The depth and breadth of the problem have been hard to quantify.

Between March 20 and April 1, 2020, the Model Alliance conducted a survey to better understand the needs and concerns of fashion models during the COVID-19 crisis. A total of 212 working models responded to the survey, which was distributed over social media channels. Researchers at the Worker Institute at Cornell provided input in developing the survey and analyzed the results. Today the Worker Institute, ILR School, Cornell University, and the Model Alliance released the survey, Fashioning a Response: Results from the Model Alliance COVID-19 Survey and a Call to Action.

“The Model Alliance COVID-19 Survey provides a window into the devastating toll of this crisis on workers who are misclassified as independent contractors, and stripped of fundamental rights,” said Sanjay Pinto, a report co-author and fellow at the Worker Institute at Cornell. “We need to use this moment to ensure universal access to key labor and social protections now and in the future.”

Results found that one in five respondents (20%) said they did not currently have enough money to cover basic needs, and just over half (51%) said they could not cover essential needs in the event they were unable to work during the next three months. Fewer than one-third of respondents (30%) said they had received guidance, assistance, or resources from their agency in response to the coronavirus pandemic. More than half of respondents (55%) said they were owed money by clients. Around half (49%) were owed money by their agencies. A little over a third (36%) were owed money by both. Nearly one-third (30%) said they had outstanding payments for which they had waited more than ninety days.

“What the pandemic has exposed is the degree to which standard agency practices, particularly those related to payment and agency fees, leave models vulnerable to exploitation and economic precarity. We hope that our findings provide a blueprint for agencies seeking to do the right thing to create a more humane, equitable modeling industry,” said Phoebe Strom, report co-author, and Cornell ILR Ph.D. Candidate.

Respondents of color—and black respondents in particular—were substantially more likely to say that they would not cover basic needs both at the time of the survey and following three additional months without income.

"The racial disparities highlighted in these survey results are a call to action," said KC Wagner, Co-Chair of the Equity at Work Initiative at the Worker Institute at Cornell. "We need to center the unique challenges confronting communities of color as we respond to this crisis and try to come out stronger on the other side."

Recommendations include asking that modeling agencies suspend agency fees for the duration of the crisis, ensure models are paid what they are owed for outstanding invoices, provide timely and accurate information and resources on safety and health protections, and access benefits to all models they represent.

To read more about results and the Model Alliance’s recommendations to government officials, agencies, and advocates, please read the full report, and "The State of Fashion Models in a Pandemic," a story on the report in the New York Times published today.

Graphic from Model Alliance and Worker Institute Report

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