A few years ago, Shanti Gonzales started waking up in the morning with no voice.
At the time, she was working a gig where she would sing to rooms of rambunctious children at libraries and schools, and it took a toll.
No amount of honey and tea and lozenges helped. She often would wind up hoarse by the end of her shift, meaning she had to stop working — at that job, and at her other gigs.
“I didn’t have anything to lean back on. I didn’t have paid time off. I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t have any benefits. I didn’t even have someone to cover for me,” she said.
“Without these protections, you feel trapped.”
Like many her age, Gonzales, 24, is working in what’s called the gig economy. Though the term may bring to mind jobs that involve some kind of online platform (such as Fiverr or Foodora), it also includes those who work independent contracts for short, fixed periods of time.
The rise of the gig economy has led to a problem: workers who are juggling several different contracts don’t always have the protections, such as a human resources department, or a union, that salaried workers do.
Gonzales graduated from McGill with a BA in English three years ago, and since then, she’s never had a full-time job. She has worked as a musician, nanny, arts educator, administrator, copywriter and playwright.
In some of those jobs, she has faced discrimination based on her gender, her race, and her age, she said. But she never had many avenues of recourse.
A ‘rolling back’ of labour protections?
According to John Paul Ferguson, a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, the gig economy has less to do with the type of work people are doing and more to do with the relationship between the employer and the employee.
Along with his colleague Matthew Corritore, Ferguson is surveying gig economy workers in Montreal to better understand their realities.
Ferguson says while there are some good things about the gig economy — like how online platforms can make it easier for people to contract for work — he has concerns about the effect of the gig economy on workers’ rights.
In the past, policies were put in place restricting casual labour because of concerns about exploitation, underpayment and unfairness, he said.
“The worry that those of us who have studied employment for many years have is: how much of this is just a rolling back of some of these protections that we put on our employees in the past?”
The province’s major labour laws do not apply to people who are self-employed. However, Catherine Poulin, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Ministry of Labour, said some self-employed workers in the gig economy may actually have an employer-employee relationship with their employer, and therefore are protected.
Gonzales, for example, is considered an employee at some jobs, but considered self-employed at others.
Those who face discrimination are also entitled to the protections under the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and can file a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights commission, Poulin said in a statement.
Relying on a community
Gonzales says one of the most important aspects of the gig economy is knowing which gigs are good and which are not.
She relies on a community of people who meet up in person or chat over the phone to give each other advice about jobs and employers to avoid.
This tight-knit web of people also share opportunities with each other and recommend each other for jobs that may come up.
Gonzales said being a part of the gig economy can be isolating and leave people vulnerable because they don’t have co-workers.
“I think that’s why these little micro communities form. It’s the people: we’re ‘in it’ for each other. We’re in it to make sure that we can achieve each others’ goals, together. The community aspect is the thing I am fiercely protective of and fiercely invested in.”
With no benefits, San Antonio gig workers struggle to make a living, avoid coronavirus
You wake up with a scratchy throat and a tight chest, but otherwise you feel OK.
It’s most likely not COVID-19, but you know you should stay home, just in case.
But what if you can’t stay home and still pay the bills?
“I’ve been that way for the past week — with just a cough. And maybe it’s just a cold or allergies. It could be, but the fact is that I’m out there, I’m shopping for people’s items,” said one San Antonio Instacart shopper who asked to remain anonymous. “I need to make money, and I’m going to put that aside.”
With many San Antonians hunkered down, complying the city’s restrictive stay-at-home orders, gig workers are on overdrive trying to meet the flood of restaurant deliveries and grocery store shopping orders.
Those grocery shoppers and delivery drivers receive virtually no benefits, and each day face an elevated risk of contracting the virus.
The more one works to meet the demand, the greater the risk of getting sick. And with no sick leave, workers said they’ve had to choose between their livelihood and the public’s health and their own.
“I’m trying to decide if I want to continue to work as hard because I know that every time I set foot in a grocery store, I’m increasing the likelihood that I will get sick,” said one Shipt shopper who also requested anonymity so her Shipt account would not be deactivated. “If I get sick, I’m not going to be covered, and nobody is paying my bills.”
The pandemic has shown the absence of a safety net for gig workers, and has brought renewed public scrutiny to the technology-enabled gig economy, in which companies such as Uber, Shipt, Instacart, Lyft and others classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
That classification gives gig workers a greater degree of flexibility than most other workers, who can set their own work schedules. But it also means companies are largely able to avoid offering unemployment, health care or sick pay to workers.
“Corporations have long made the case that the nature of work is changing — people want flexibility in the 21st century economy,” said Brian Chen, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project and an advocate for gig workers. “But then you see these very low-paid individuals working through a pandemic just to pay the bills, and that shows you the reality of how much flexibility these workers have.
“This COVID pandemic has shown we have an entire group of workers who have no rights under our labor laws,” he said.
Over the last month, companies such as Instacart and Shipt have touted the protections and benefits they’re providing to workers during the crisis. The companies agreed to ease rules around grocery delivery time frames, made it easier for shoppers to pay and are waiving poor customer reviews.
The companies also said they’ll be providing workers with hand sanitizer and cleaning products in coming weeks.
“Our teams are working around the clock to safely serve all members of our community, and we’re incredibly grateful for Instacart shoppers like you who have stepped up as household heroes during this time,” Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta said in a note to workers late last month.
Along with Uber and Lyft, the companies also offered 14 days of paid sick time off for workers who test positive for COVID-19, though testing capacity is still limited in San Antonio and across the nation.
“It still seems like a joke,” said the Instacart shopper. “It’s already really difficult to get a test. Just because you have coronavirus doesn’t mean you’re going to get a test. It seems like it was a fake thing for Instacart to put up and say, ‘Oh, we’re doing this.’ But here’s all the fine print. It made a lot of people who didn’t read into it feel better.”
In separate interviews, four San Antonio gig workers all said they willingly take on the day-to-day risks of their work — that is, frequent contact with strangers. They said they’re committed to helping vulnerable people during the pandemic.
Many gig grocery shoppers work exclusively with clients wuth whom they’ve built a rapport. The majority of customers on Instacart and Shipt are elderly or people with weakened immune systems particularly at threat from the virus, shoppers said.
“When we all initially got into gig work, we got into it for a financial reason,” said a second Instacart shopper, who is also a health care worker and a nighttime Uber driver. “You need to close a gap in income. You need to pay for an extra class for college. You have unforeseen medical expenses. But when coronavirus hit, that reason changed for a lot of people.
“There is a bit of fear involved with me going out and going shopping, being in public when we’re told we shouldn’t be,” she said. “However, what would these people do if I didn’t do it?”
Several gig workers also said they enjoy the benefits of the flexible, informal nature of the work they do.
“It’s easy to pick up on, and you don’t have to register or fill out a lot of documentation,” the first Instacart shopper said. “You just open the app and get started. With the way we’re independent contractors, it would absolutely be nice if we have some benefit of health insurance. But the price you pay is you have such flexibility. ‘I’ve got an hour to kill? Maybe I can pick something up.’”
These days, the average gig grocery shopper in San Antonio starts their day at about 7 a.m. waiting in line outside of an H-E-B. After the hour-long wait for the store to open, shoppers dash inside — first to the cleaning supplies aisle, then a race to find any leftover perishable goods, such as ground beef.
Rideshare drivers have complained of a sharp drop in ridership recently, but shoppers said demand has skyrocketed for them in recent weeks. Before the pandemic, the first Instacart shopper may have completed 5 or 6 grocery orders in a full day; he now fulfills about 12 to 13 orders.
Two months ago, there may have been 20 to 30 grocery orders on the Shipt app at the start of each day, one shopper said. Now, there are between 600 and 700 orders at the start of every day, and around 250 orders go unfulfilled daily.
“The way I think of it is every offer is one family that needs groceries or cleaning supplies, so it’s kind of overwhelming because at the end of our days, it’s like 250 families we still haven’t helped,” the Shipt shopper said. “San Antonio has probably 2,500 (Shipt) shoppers. There’s a lot of shoppers, but a good portion of regular shoppers have stopped shopping because they’re scared of getting sick.”
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently asked President Donald Trump to provide relief for gig workers in the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress last week.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provision included in the package provides $600 per week in unemployment benefits for gig workers in Texas affected by the viral outbreak.
But while the benefits may help some gig workers in the short term, experts note the federal government funding unemployment insurance for them isn’t sustainable.
Under normal circumstances, gig workers don’t qualify for unemployment. Employers pay a payroll tax for each employee, which contributes to the pot of money in each state that’s available for workers seeking unemployment.
Because gig-economy platforms don’t classify workers as employees — oftentimes labeling them “entrepreneurs” — they don’t offer benefits or pay into the unemployment insurance fund for workers.
That’s left the general taxpayer to foot the bill for gig workers’ unemployment insurance.
“In a system working correctly, gig workers in Texas would by any measure be classified as full-time employees and would qualify for regular state unemployment insurance,” Chen said. “And it would be corporations like Uber and Lyft paying their fair share in the unemployment system, rather than have the government cover it during an emergency.”
Khosrowshahi and other tech executives have argued workers on the different platforms prefer flexibility, and categorizing drivers or shoppers as full-time employees would mean they’d lose the freedom to work when and where they want.
A Barclays analysis last summer found it would cost Uber and Lyft hundreds of millions just to reclassify drivers in California as employees, and could potentially bankrupt both companies.
In the meantime, the gig workers interviewed for this story, lacking health care benefits, said they’re doing what they can to keep themselves and their customers virus-free.
Each worker detailed their hygiene routines, which include sanitizing and spraying Lysol several times per day, and also sanitizing grocery bags before they’re left at a customers’ door, among other precautions.
The day ends with the shoppers immediately throwing their outfit in the washer and taking a shower.
“So many of the customers that I have right now, they’re elderly, and they’re like my family at this point,” said a second Shipt shopper. “I know I’m doing what I can for my family at home to reduce their risk of getting something from whatever I may have come in contact with potentially. But other people don’t have that option. There’s that feeling of a call to duty.”
Several gig workers said they have considered filing for unemployment, but said they would rather continue working if they’re able to.
They also said they hope the pandemic makes consumers reconsider the value of gig work.
“People are seeing the inequality at work when you have a certain set of people that are doing such essential work, but are so left behind by our existing labor laws and by employers,” Chen said. “What is the value of this work? Why don’t these workers have the most basic and fundamental protections at work?”
Gold standard cyber security in the ‘gig economy’
David Higgins, EMEA Technical Director, CyberArk.
The ‘gig economy’ is described as many things. On the one extreme, it is depicted as symptomatic of the decline in the traditional nine-to-five day job with a stable income, while on the other, it is viewed as the jet fuel powering the new world economy.
This new economy is driven by the increasing trend whereby companies hire independent contractors and freelancers, instead of full-time employees, paying them for each individual ‘gig’ they do.
It certainly holds a lot of promise for this continent, and has in fact been dubbed ‘the future of work in Africa’ by the Centre for Global Development, mainly due to the fact that the vast majority of the continent’s workforce are self-employed and freelancers.
As with elsewhere on the continent, this approach also holds true for South Africa, as despite an unemployment rate that remains in the doldrums, analysts suggest the gig economy can play a big role in alleviating the problem of joblessness in the country.
While the typical gig economy worker is usually, as an example, described as a part-time Uber or Deliveroo driver, the fact is that IT contracting is a very common gig economy role. In fact, even traditional retail and corporate powerhouses now comprise a mix of full-time, part-time and short-term workers. This ensures they can remain nimble, cost-effective, and able to adapt to changing market conditions in a fast-paced, technology-led environment.
It is unsurprising that a large portion of the gig economy is dedicated to IT, since it is in line with how modern enterprises approach IT in general. Being able to deploy more or less IT expertise as the situation demands is akin to usage of cloud services. It’s quick, it’s flexible, and it meets the changing needs of the business.
One thing that it is not, though, is inherently secure. The risk model has shifted from a model built around controlled environments; ie, corporate networks.The perimeter – the first line of defence – was a known quantity and yes, it had holes, but generally IT departments were aware of where the weak points were. Now, the perimeter is at best distributed, and at worst non-existent. Put bluntly, the risk is that companies can no longer enforce security on the end device, as they may have no jurisdiction or control over it.
The challenge arises because IT workers perform some of the more crucial roles in 21st century organisations, since every business relies on information and technology in order to function. It’s assumed that large quantities of critical data, and at least a few critical assets, will need to be stored and managed in order for the business to serve customers, meet manufacturing deadlines and more. Therefore, it is common that IT employees are subject to strict security oversight.
However, when these roles are performed by remote third-parties, short-term contractors or otherwise not by permanent, trusted staff that are office-based, security simply has to adapt to this new way of working. After all, as flexible workers plug into an organisation’s network and access sensitive company systems from outside the physical perimeter of the office, these organisations need to ensure they have strict security protocols in place to mitigate the elevated risk that this entails.
They also need to ensure that remote gig workers are only accessing what they need to, instead of trusting them with sweeping access to everything. Risk factors include accessing networks from personal devices that lack enterprise-grade security, or from home networks that could be easily compromised. In this scenario we are far away from a world where security teams are able to enforce policy on devices within the traditional network. Now, often they will have no control at all over the device being used by the external party to connect in and, similarly, not being able to ensure the security of the location where the device is connecting from; for instance, a home WiFi network.
According to CyberArk global research, 90% of enterprises allow third-party vendors access to their critical systems and 72% put third-party access in their top 10 security risks. This indicates the problem is widespread and the risk is understood.
The real issue, then, is whether it is acted upon. If not, gig economy workers put themselves and their employers at risk of data breaches, leaks of confidential information and more. However, recent advances in technology mean the shortcomings of older ones – like virtual private networks (VPNs) – in securing remote workers can now be overcome.
Some of the ways to do this include using biometrics, Zero Trust and just-in-time provisioning, all of which can and should be employed to reliably authenticate remote vendor access to the most sensitive parts of the corporate network. In the gig economy environment, where endpoint devices have disparate levels of security and the office environment can be a café, car or home office, it is clear that cyber security needs to match the flexibility of modern working. The place where organisations can reliably enforce policy is at the point of connection and the access that they require into systems. This needs to be recognised and implemented.
Technology is ultimately the glue that holds the gig economy together, building platforms that enable the agile and flexible matching of supply and demand, and the analytics to optimise it all. It connects freelancers with their clients and businesses with the skills they need. It is obvious that remote working is only going to continue to grow – possibly spurred to new heights by the COVID-19 lockdown – which means it is imperative that organisations considering making use of the gig economy tighten up and improve their security sooner, rather than later.
Gig workers have changed Florida’s workforce. The coronavirus response is starting to reflect that.
After 19 years as a self-employed corporate communications consultant, Bruce Benidt knew the risks of being his own boss. No paid vacations, no sick leave, and, of course, no weekly unemployment benefits when work dried up.
Then the coronavirus came along. For the first time, Congress cleared the way for independent contractors and self-employed workers to apply for federal unemployment assistance. For Benidt, 69, who saw all but one client cancel upcoming jobs, the expansion arrived just in time.
“I would have never applied for unemployment had not the federal bill included gig workers, sole proprietors, independent contractors, that kind of jazz,” he said. “I think this is a wake-up call about the structure of the economy.”
In just two weeks last month, nearly 10 million laid-off Americans, an estimated 6 percent of the nation’s labor force, applied for unemployment benefits as their workplaces shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Florida claims for those two weeks totaled 301,312.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor will release statistics on how many more applied last week, with estimates of the next wave ranging up to 7 million new claims.
“The numbers are probably going to get worse before they get better,” said Bradley Kamp, an associate professor and chairman of the economics department at the University of South Florida. During the Great Recession a decade ago, Florida’s unemployment rate peaked at 11.3 percent with more than a million people unemployed. “We’re still a long way from that, but we’re about to get there is my guess, and we’ll probably even surpass that depending on how long we’re shut down.”
Like the two previous weeks, that tsunami of claims will include a sizable — but as-yet uncalculated — number of self-employed workers and independent contractors. Categories for those two groups can have multiple definitions, but generally independent contractors are counted among the self-employed. On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Labor expanded the self-employed category specifically to include gig economy workers like ride-share drivers.
Statewide, 1.16 million people are self-employed, out of a labor force of about 10 million, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey results for 2018, the most current available year. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area has almost 158,000 self-employed people, or about 10 percent of the area’s labor force.
In a separate report from 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there were 10.6 million independent contractors in the country, or about 6.7 percent of the labor force. The report did not break the numbers out by state, but using the same percentage as the country, Florida would have about 670,000 independent contractors, about 100,000 in the Tampa Bay area.
New coronavirus relief programs include $600 a week in federal unemployment insurance, but to get it, self-employed workers have to use the state system to apply. This week, Florida officials said they hadn’t set up a process to handle claims from self-employed workers and didn’t say when they would.
Florida’s malfunctioning claims website has caused an under-count of the number of people out of work.
Benidt, who lives in Port Richey, is one of them, having spent hours trying to file a claim on the state’s application website while his wife made more than 100 calls to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, all without success.
“I am spitting mad at (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis and (former Gov. Rick) Scott for ignoring three audits on this as they hew to their other social agendas,” he said. “It’s truly shocking. They’re not doing the job. They’re not governing.”
Jesse Latzman, 42, is an independent contractor who recycles precious metals from dental offices. His earnings come entirely from commissions, and he pays for his own medical insurance.
Many dentists closed their offices, which quickly put Latzman on the employment sidelines. He’s okay financially at the moment, but in a month or two he said he’ll “have to start sweating a few things.”
Given the scope of the crisis he thought it made sense for the federal government to extend benefits to independent contractors and self employed workers. But he knows how poorly Florida’s online application system worked during good times.
“Now they are scrambling to fix something that was already broken,” said Latzman, who lives north of Orlando. “The independent contractors, all the Uber drivers, all the people that work for themselves, are going to flood the system all over again.”
Rick Jorza works as a self-employed residential contractor, fixing people’s broken homes. He started his business in 2003. Even during the Great Recession he had enough work, much of it in the Tampa Bay area. Homeowners “always need stuff done,” he said.
But this time is different. No one wants contractors traipsing through their homes, coronavirus potentially in tow. He didn’t want to get sick, either.
“It was like a light switch,” said Jorza, 56. “One day you’re busy, the next there’s no more work.”
He has spent a week trying to apply for benefits, his frustration building with each failed attempt. He scoffed at how the state had spent $77 million on such a faulty online benefits system.
“I can’t believe our state is that far behind technology-wise,” he said. “It’s a disgrace.”
To save money, Jorza moved back in with his ex-wife in Deltona. They had remained friends, so it’s not as awkward as it sounds. He also gets more time with his 20-year-old son.
“I’m getting by, but I can’t go six months or a year without work,” he said. “Something’s got to give.”
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