Gig News — November 3, 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.

The gig economy might not be as transformative as news coverage suggests.  A new report from the Pew Research Center found that the share of Americans who identify as self-employed has actually been in decline since the mid-1990s.  The Wall Street Journal explained the Pew findings by noting the gig model is relatively uncommon beyond some high-profile companies and suggesting that the gig economy thrives in industries where independent contractors were already predominant.  Money further looked into the study in relation to other findings by the Government Accountability Office.  And at the Economic Policy Institute, Lawrence Mishel looked at both the Pew results and BLS data to conclude that “gig jobs represent a smaller share of total employment and the share of gig employment has been stable (rather than falling) since 1995.”

Gig economy firms continue to face new legal challenges over their classification of workers as independent contractors.  OnLabor previously covered a new lawsuit against Amazon by drivers for its new Prime Now service over their classification as independent contractors.  Additionally, Time reports that a former Uber driver in California filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Industrial Relations alleging he should be classified as an employee and thus “reimbursed for work-related expenses such as gas, car maintenance and repairs.”  Finally, The Hill notes that a driver for Google Express filed a proposed class action against Google in Massachusetts alleging she was misclassified as an independent contractor.  The complainant is seeking compensation for overtime and expenses, highlighting that she was required to wear a Google uniform and accept every delivery request while working.

For its part, Uber responded to an opinion authored by Oregon’s labor commissioner concluding that Uber drivers should be classified as employees.  According to The Columbian, an Uber executive stated that the Oregon report “mischaracterized the degree of control the company has over the drivers.” Uber regional general manager William Barnes further emphasized statistics demonstrating that Uber drivers take advantage of flexibility and that “if drivers were employees, they would have to work fixed and pre-assigned shifts, and their ability to work across multiple platforms simultaneously would be restricted — mechanisms of control that traditional employers exert over employees.”  For a challenge of this position, see Professor Sachs’ post.

Seeking answers to questions about labor and the gig economy, The San Francisco Chronicle turned to U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.  In an interview, Perez noted the problem of misclassification, dismissed the idea of a third classification of workers, and implied that no special actions are being taken with respect to the gig economy.

For those unable to attend, The Harvard Crimson covered last week’s conversation at Harvard Law School between Professor Sachs and Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing Uber and Lyft drivers in major classification suits as well as other gig economy workers.  A full video recording of the event is also freely available.  Liss-Riordan said “Uber drivers cannot be classified as independent contractors because the company evaluates driver performance, claiming the right to deactivate drivers who receive poor customer ratings.”  She added that she wants to “give Uber drivers employee status and increase Uber’s share of profits—now set at 20 percent—to pay for the provision of labor benefits.”

OnLabor previously covered a nuanced analysis of Uber’s rating system published in The Verge in which Professor Sachs was cited for noting potential Title VII employment discrimination claims that could arise from the use of ratings.

Today is Election Day, and in San Francisco voters will decide whether to restrict short-term rentals like those listed through gig economy firm Airbnb.  U.S. News reports that Proposition F, before city voters, would limit short-term rentals through websites to 75 nights per year.  To rally opposition to the measure, Airbnb has turned to temporary workers hired through another gig economy firm, Wonlo.  SF Weekly notes that Wonlo advertises itself as “Uber for work” and that workers hired through the agency are independent contractors.

Internationally, the gig economy also generates headlines.  The Economist looks at the state of the gig economy in Great Britain, while ZDNet reports that the Labor Party in Australia has announced support and six principles for the gig economy.

Finally, Steven Hill of the New America Foundation published a new book on how he believes the gig economy is impacting work and, in connection with its release, contributed commentary to CNN and Salon.

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