Gig workers deserve better

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In recent months, employees at a number of big-box corporations – most notably StarbucksAmazonAppleREI, and Trader Joe’s – have taken historic first steps in organizing unions. For far too long, these and other companies in the service industry have treated their employees poorly, so it’s great to see workers all over the country join forces to fight back.

As it happens though, these brave employees leading unionization efforts might not be the worst off in the service sector. According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), that unfortunate award goes to gig workers, who, ironically enough, aren’t even considered employees of their companies at all.

Gig workers have been around for a while in America. They are self-employed, freelancing “independent contractors” that typically take up short-term contract work. In today’s America, however, gig workers have become virtually synonymous with workers at digital platform companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart – all of which classify their workers as independent contractors.

These companies claim this employment status, or lack-thereof, gives workers more independence and flexibility than traditional W-2 employees. But while being classified as an independent contractor might seem nice on the surface (who doesn’t want more independence and flexibility on the job?), the reality of the situation is far different and rather bleak. Because gig workers are not traditional W-2 employees of the companies that they work for, they are not entitled to the workplace protections that standard employees receive. This includes, among other things, minimum wages, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, paid sick days, anti-discrimination protections, and the right to a union.

The new EPI report highlights the horrible impact of this classification on the lives and livelihoods of gig workers. It uses findings from a May 2020 survey conducted by the Shift Project to elucidate just how poorly gig workers are faring in today’s America, even compared to their W-2 service-sector employee counterparts.

Here are some of the most shocking findings from the survey:

  • About 1 in 7 (14%) of gig workers earned less than the $7.25 federal minimum wage, compared to 0% of W-2 service-sector workers. Moreover, more than twice as many gig workers – 26% compared to 11% of standard employees – earned less than $10 an hour.
  • More than a quarter of gig workers (29%) earned less than their state minimum wage, compared to 1% of standard service-sector employees.
  • About 3 in 5 (62%) of gig workers reported losing earnings at least once because of “technical difficulties clocking in or out,” compared to 19% of W-2 employees.
  • Twice (30%) the number of gig workers reported using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) compared to W-2 employees (15%).
  • Nearly a third of gig workers (31%) reported not being able to pay their utility bills, compared to 17% of standard employees.
  • Over half of gig workers (55%) reported that they intended to find a new job, compared to 36% of W-2 employees.

These findings are outrageous. It’s bad enough that standard employees of some of the most profitable corporations in the American service industry need to resort to union campaigns just to receive adequate pay, benefits, and working conditions. It’s even worse that gig workers from equally profitable digital platforms – who clearly face even worse pay and treatment compared to other service-sector workers – don’t even have the right to launch these kinds of campaigns in the first place because they aren’t technically “employees” of the companies they work for.

This has to stop. Ultra-profitable digital companies need to be held to account and prevented from misclassifying their workers as independent contractors. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to appreciate that the Uber driver that takes us to the airport on Sunday is just as much an “employee” of their company as the Starbucks barista that pours our coffee on Monday. We need to ensure that every employee in every industry is treated and paid well, and that should at the very least start by ensuring that they’re actually recognized as proper employees in the first place.

Democrats in Congress can take a first step to right this wrong by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would prevent misclassification of employees by requiring employers to follow a test to determine employee status. They must do whatever is necessary to galvanize support for the bill, especially before the political window for action potentially closes with the 2022 midterms.

​​Digital platform companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash can absolutely afford to pay and treat their workers well. Let’s not let them get away from this obligation on a mere technicality.

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