Silicon Valley entrepreneurs keep telling us their way of doing business will “change the world.” And in many ways it already has, but it’s changed your world differently than it’s changed theirs.
The “sharing” or “gig” economy—think Airbnb, Uber, and Taskrabbit—has made massive fortunes reducing labor to disassembled microtasks; unfortunately, it’s shrunk workers’ rights too. But as our jobs are redefined by labor-brokering platforms, some advocates are trying to redefine labor rights for a digital economy.
Currently, the gig economy trades labor fluidly across online platforms, digital hiring halls where workers typically farm out their short-term gofer services: a ride offered through your private car, fishing someone’s keys out of a gutter, hand-delivering a package across town. For these nominally independent contractors, labor protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act generally don’t apply. Yet these contract jobs are at least as hierarchical as an assembly line; “independence” means you get assigned where to drive but pay your own traffic tickets, you fund your own social insurance, and if you’re sexually harassed or hurt on the job, may be left completely on your own.
That’s why the National Employment Law Project (NELP) has come up with a new policy blueprint, focused on regulating the so-called “on-demand economy” of tech-driven gig employment, to put forward concrete policy models that can help restructure the “1099” contractor relationship to offer workers greater protection. One potential model is the statutory employee framework, under which contractors are for certain regulatory purposes considered workers, generally for tax laws. NELP notes that local and state policymakers can expand this structure to provide “portable” benefits by “directly requir[ing] that companies that use IRS-Form-1099 workers abide by labor standards such as the minimum wage and others, and pay into Social Security and state workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance funds.”
Many gig workers aren’t really thinking about retirement yet; they’re struggling to get paid today.
At the media conference announcing NELP’s report, Takele Gobena of Seattle said he used to make $9.40 at the SeaTac airport complex, but sought more entrepreneurial pastures driving for Uber and Lyft while studying and raising a young family. Then came the car expenses and other requisite investments needed for ride-sharing, plus the 15-hour shifts his “flexible” job platform demanded—which left him earning the equivalent of less than $3 an hour.