Opinion | Gig Workers Are Employees. Start Treating Them That Way.

One of the nation’s largest grocery chains, Albertsons, announced this month that it would replace many of its staff delivery drivers with independent contractors working for the delivery service DoorDash. Those contractors will not receive important labor protections that have been provided to the full-time employees they will be replacing.

For years, companies and legislators have debated whether so-called gig workers like those who drive cars for Uber or deliver groceries for DoorDash should be entitled to benefits like minimum wage and unemployment insurance. But in the wake of a California ballot proposition passed in November and a rule just released by the Trump administration, it appears that the erosion of labor protections is advancing aggressively.

When the gig economy sprang up during the Obama years, it seemed novel. Companies like Uber used software to offer assignments to people on call who set their own hours. One major caveat: As independent contractors, these workers wouldn’t get traditional wage protections, workers’ compensation, health insurance or unemployment benefits. But that didn’t stop the quick expansion of the gig economy.

In 2019, California legislators sought to improve life for gig-company workers, passing a law that required companies to treat app-deployed workers as employees. In response, the companies spent $200 million promoting Proposition 22, a state ballot initiative that affirmed gig companies’ classification of their workers as contractors while enshrining limited protections.

This hybrid labor category came from an unexpected source. In 2015, Seth Harris and Alan Krueger, labor economists from the Obama administration, argued against giving gig workers employment status. Instead, they proposed a compromise: App-deployed workers could receive some rights, like tax withholding and a right to organize, but not others, such as a minimum wage and unemployment insurance.

But researchers like us who have documented the exploitive conditions of gig work worried that this approach would hurt a much larger group of service workers — just as the Albertsons decision will.

App workers need the same benefits afforded to traditional workers, including payment for time between assignments, unemployment benefits and the right to organize. The pandemic, which greatly worsened conditions for delivery workers and “shoppers” (the people assembling grocery orders), has exposed just how vital basic protections are for vulnerable workers.

In ongoing research with colleagues at Northeastern University, one of us, Dr. Schor, analyzed a delivery platform that converted its California workers to employees before the passage of the 2019 law. Both top and middle management said they felt positively about the switch, citing improved performances and increased productivity that partly offset the costs of employment protections.

In ethnographic research on Uber and Lyft ride-hail drivers, Dr. Dubal found that, contrary to the companies’ promises of freedom and flexibility, longtime drivers feel trapped in grueling work schedules and controlled by their algorithmic bosses. Notably, these findings undermine Uber and Lyft’s arguments against employment status.

In a bad omen for workers outside California, Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive of Uber, has vowed to support efforts similar to Proposition 22 elsewhere. Lyft, a competitor, is behind political action committees that will support candidates who will protect its business model. Shawn Carolan, a venture capitalist whose firm has invested in Uber, has written that the Proposition 22 model should be extended to other industries, such as education, health care and computer programming — which would increase the number of Americans who toil without a safety net or predictable earnings.

In some sense, gig-economy companies have been moving in parallel with Washington. The Trump Labor Department this month released a rule, set to go into effect in March, that will make it easier for companies to designate their workers as independent contractors.

But the incoming Biden administration can undo the rule. And working with Congress, it can move to dignify app-deployed work by calling it what it is: employment.

The Biden administration can end the state-by-state, sector-by-sector battle over basic workers’ rights. It can clarify that exemptions from employment and labor laws violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, therefore invalidating Proposition 22.

Marty Walsh, Joe Biden’s nominee for labor secretary, can also move to revoke a Trump administration letter from 2019 that classifies gig workers as contractors. Perhaps most important, the Biden administration could work on winning passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would untie the hands of workers who seek to organize their workplaces.

As inequality reaches record highs, the hybrid-worker category threatens the future of all service workers. With the building of progressive momentum to address racial and economic inequality, the Biden administration should expand protections for all workers, not allow them to erode for millions more.

Veena Dubal (@veenadubal) is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Juliet Schor (@JulietSchor) is a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of “After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back.”

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