Gig News — June 10, 2015

Jon Weinberg

Jon Weinberg is a student at Harvard Law School.

This post is part of an ongoing series on labor and the gig economy.

Senator Mark Warner has emerged as a leading advocate for gig economy workers.  The Virginian-Pilot reports that Sen. Warner gave a speech last week at the New America Foundation noting his concern about the lack of protections for independent contractors in the gig economy, and outlining ideas about how the federal government can change and adapt worker protection law and programs accordingly.  According to The Washington Post, Sen. Warner spent the last few months talking to “think tanks, unions, business leaders and workers” to help frame his ideas, which include setting up marketplaces for benefits similar to how the Affordable Care Act facilitates purchasing health care without an employer, and reforming the tax code to account for “dependent contractors” who tend to work for a single employer while remaining more autonomous than traditional employees.  In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Sen. Warner said he became interested in helping gig economy workers because of his experience as a technology executive.  He also elaborated on the work he has done so far and possible ways efforts will move forward.

The Hill published a story on how federal lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned about regulations concerning gig economy workers, stating “critics from across the political spectrum – from liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to a Republican member of the National Labor Relations Board – are signaling it may be time to overhaul regulations for companies that avoid paying benefits by classifying their workers as contractors.”  The story focuses on the dispute over whether gig economy workers should be categorized as employees or independent contractors and how federal courts, Congress, the Department of Labor and the NLRB might intervene in what had previously been a debate on the state and local level.  Relatedly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was quoted by SiliconBeat last week saying “I think there is evidence that increasingly employers use independent contractors not in ways that were usually intended but in ways that permit them to treat employment laws differently than they otherwise would be responsible for, and I think that’s a real problem.

Researchers from Stanford University released the results of a comprehensive survey of gig economy workers.  The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted that the survey findings suggest “many workers have found the pay lower and the hours less flexible than expected” and that “their top workplace desires were to have paid health insurance, retirement benefits and paid time off for holidays, vacations and sick days – all perks of full-time workers.”  Per the survey, gig economy workers earn a median income of $18 an hour before expenses and some lack required automobile insurance.  Responding to the survey results in The Washington Post, Lydia DePillis said “it’s a rough and imperfect sample, but at a time when there’s still precious little data on the characteristics of this new workforce, it gives us some idea of what they’re going through.”  She focused on the findings that showed many gig economy workers lack a sufficient income from their work, also noting the release of a significant OECD report detailing how non-traditional work pays significantly less than standard employment.  That report was covered in detail by Time.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity found that an Uber driver was an employee of the company, not an independent contractor, and thus eligible for unemployment benefits, according to the Miami Herald.  The administrative decision only affects a single driver.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims analyzed data concerning Uber and Lyft drivers and their income, concluding that gig economy workers should be classified as “dependent contactors.”  While he notes the category doesn’t currently exist under American law, he identifies other countries “where dependent contractors get more protections than freelancers but are distinct from full-time employees.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, American Constitution Society President Caroline Fredrickson advocates for classifying gig economy workers as employees.  She believes that gig economy firms categorize workers as independent contractors to avoid labor laws, and the strategy allows firms to gain the benefits of workers without many of the financial burdens. Fredrickson calls on policymakers to respond.

Writing in The Washington Post on the impact of the gig economy on the quantity and quality of future jobs, Jared Bernstein concludes that “if I’m right, the quantity and quality of future jobs will be much improved if we employ public policy to lean against growing inequality and weak bargaining power.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that in Australia a new national union campaign will focus on gig economy worker rights and wages.  The effort is being organized by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which believes the gig economy has given rise to a host of new workplace problems.

Business Insurance reports on the insurance implications of the gig economy.  The article states that as gig economy firms “become more popular among workers, creating new definitions of workplace accidents and injuries become more important. In the meantime, insurers can educate on-demand workers that they may need to buy their own insurance, experts said.”

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.