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Covid-19: A unique challenge for gig-sector businesses

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Covid-19 has highlighted that during times of crisis the underlying difference in the way gig-economy workers and traditional employees are treated needs to be addressed. Samantha Gilbert looks at why companies should ensure gig-sector workers are financially supported to stem the spread of the virus, but also to help preserve their reputations.

As the outbreak of covid-19 continues to unfold, one group of workers that have faced increasing difficulties are those working in the so-called gig economy, whereby workers are paid per job, rather than hourly. Such roles include event staff, taxi drivers and delivery drivers, to name but a few. Given that gig sector workers are not “employed” in the traditional sense, they are often caught between choosing to remain at home, self-isolating to avoid potentially passing the virus onto others or remaining in work to support themselves and their families.

Companies who fail to respond to this issue without implementing measures to protect their workers and customers could, therefore, not only be placing people in danger, they could also be facing huge reputational damages. Catherine Casserley, a barrister specialising in employment and discrimination at Cloisters warns “companies could find themselves at the receiving end of a boycott or a drop-in trade because people are worried about catching the virus… It is extremely important, that companies take measures so far as possible to reduce the risk to its workers of contracting the virus – not only for its own business but for the population at large – the sooner this stops spreading, the sooner that the economy can return to normality,” she says.  

Businesses in the gig sector should ensure they are putting in place protocols for their employees, vendors, and contract workers that focus on the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health guidance according to Ellen Feeney, VP and counsel at ADP. “Being clear in company policies that steps are being taken to protect all workers, including gig workers” she says, will help protect companies against damaging accusations of treating gig-economy workers discriminatorily or even unethically in comparison to full-time or contracted employees.

Providing greater financial support for workers

One way to ensure companies in the gig sector can ensure they are helping to protect employees, while also ensuring they are not perceived to be acting in an unethical or irresponsible manner, is to provide workers with pay when they have contracted covid-19.  

On 30 March 2020, for example, gig-economy workers commenced a strike on delivering groceries across the US, demanding their employers expand protective benefits like sick pay to workers beyond those who have tested positive for covid-19 or have been put into mandatory quarantine by an official body. The events brought the issue to the attention of media outlets, which can be very damaging to the public perception of the companies involved, which included Instacart and Amazon; it also raises the question of exactly what the responsibility of companies should be towards employees during times of crisis such as those resulting from covid-19. “This is a time when ultimately delivery firms are likely to be one of the few industries financially benefiting from what is a devasting time for many sectors,” says Casserley. 

Some companies have already found solutions. Uber and Lyft now offer drivers and delivery people 14 days of paid sick leave if they fall ill with coronavirus or are placed in quarantine. In the US, Instacart will cover up to 14 days of pay for its contractors and part-time employees diagnosed with covid-19 or placed in mandatory quarantine. It also introduced sick pay coverage for part-time employees. In the UK, Hermes has set aside a £1 million support fund to provide sick pay for its 15,000 courier workers, following warnings from trade unions that a lack of sick pay for the over 1 million UK gig-economy workers could accelerate the spread of covid-19 in the country. What is interesting about Hermes’ approach, Casserley points out, is that in addition to sick pay, Hermes has pledged to “assist drivers in finding a substitute driver to cover their shift (the responsibility usually falling upon the workers) while guaranteeing that roles are left open for them when they return.” While the company is having to increase its responsibilities towards gig-workers during this time, it is also ensuring the brand and reputation are protected by showing that it is taking a more ethical approach to its relationship with gig-workers under exceptional circumstances.

Companies may feel that temporarily providing gig-workers with sick pay sets a precedent, but Casserley emphasises that since “we are in unprecedented times, it is unlikely that payment in these circumstances makes it a custom and practice in future – unless another pandemic occurs, and work is in similar demand.”

While temporarily providing sick pay may not necessarily set a precedent for the gig sector, it may pose challenges post-crisis once these rights are taken away, according to Elliot Dinkin, CEO of employment compensation and compliance consultancy Cowden Associates Inc. “Giving a gig worker sick pay crosses the line where you start giving out benefits as if they’re regular employees”, he says. Some companies who are concerned that giving gig workers sick pay will open to door to workers expecting sick pay after covid-19, or could demotivate their healthy workers from performing their roles, might choose to implement a payment percentage system that maintains the distinction between a gig worker and a contracted employee.

Instead of offering sick pay, Dinkin suggests companies could agree to pay a worker a percentage of their salary (eg, 70%) for the duration of the pandemic, which is based on the shifts they have completed in the previous six months. This amount, although only 70% of their usual pay, will be a guaranteed amount that will be paid to the worker even if they are unable to work due to covid-19 or self-isolation during this period. This establishes a system where workers will receive a reduced amount of pay in the interim, but also means they have a reliable source of income even if they fall ill during the pandemic.

Given that some workers will be taking on extra shifts while getting a reduced salary to cover for absent colleagues, Dinkin suggests a quarterly “true-up” of wages to reflect any extra shifts. This is where the amount a company owes for a service provided by a party is recalculated based upon the amount of work or services completed, rather than contractual estimates. This model also gives workers a financial incentive to continue to attend work, while feeling assured that they can rely on the 70% pay calculation should they fall ill or need to self-isolate.

The downside of this system, however, and one that may discourage some companies, is the risk of overpaying a worker. For example, if an individual self-isolates or becomes very ill with COVID-19 and cannot work for weeks, the company has committed to paying them a percentage of their pay for this time, but Dinkin says “that is a risk companies have to take from a business perspective,” because under the circumstances, it could cost a business a great deal more to do nothing.

Giving workers a framework where they are receiving money when they stay at home is an effective way of protecting employees and helping to stem the virus, agrees Casserley, but by the same token “ultimately people need to know that there will not be an impact upon their income which means that it is not worth their while to work when ill.” From a reputational perspective, Casserley says it is “better in many ways to get ahead of the curve to ensure workers are protected and incentivised to stay home if necessary, engendering loyalty and public appreciation for a company that is doing its bit to help stem the spread of the virus in these challenging times.”

Furthermore, acting in advance avoids any future action from the unions, particularly since gig-sector workers are becoming increasingly unionised. This can be seen in the UK, where the chancellor amended the coronavirus bailout policy to include provisions for freelancers or self-employed individuals after lawyers for a trade union threated the government with legal action based on the differential treatment of self-employed workers compared to employees. Now self-employed workers qualify to receive 80% of their monthly net earnings based on earnings over three years or an amount of £2,500 per month, whichever is the lower. Unfortunately, the money is unlikely to come through until the end of April. 

Ultimately, Casserley concludes, whether a company decides to offer sick pay or a reduction in pay, both methods can help reassure ill or vulnerable workers that they have a dependable source of income during covid-19.

Perceptions of risk

For compliance teams, it will come down to assessing the risks for their specific company and deciding which approach fits best: a percentage payment model or temporary sick pay, but either way “communication is key”, Feeney says, and “companies should be communicating not just with their employees during the pandemic but also with their vendors and gig workers.” To lessen the risk of gig economy workers being disgruntled once the sick pay provisions stop, companies should notify them of any changes to policies or pay regimes as a result of covid-19 and emphasise the measure may only be a temporary one.

Good communication will also demonstrate to gig workers that their health and interests are being considered equally to full-time employees, tackling the perception of discrimination. If employees feel financially supported, they will also feel encouraged to report potential exposures to covid-19 in the workplace, reducing the risk of contamination and further disruption to the business. Setting up a culture of openness and communication with gig workers will also help a company ensure positive reporting practices, which will benefit the organisation’s reputation should a future pandemic or similar crisis occur, because the sooner a risk or outbreak is reported, the faster they can respond to contain the exposure to their employees or customers. This will then reduce the wider impact on operations, productivity and reputation because if fewer employers are taken ill, business as usual can be returned to more quickly.

Finally, while the gig economy offers flexibility and independence for the workers, covid-19 has highlighted the risks associated with companies that rely upon a vast network of self-employed and freelance workers. Though companies may be implementing different strategies to manage the risks resulting from the pandemic, it is clear that many are having to rethink worker protections to protect their employees and customers in a crisis.

The pandemic is “a very eye-opening situation” for companies who saw the gig economy as the holy grail of cost-efficiency, says Dinkin. “Companies thought they were going to save costs by having contract workers, [but now] may lose out in their top-line revenues because gig-workers will get dissatisfied with their arrangement and go back to the more traditional approach.”

Lexology PRO Compliance is including articles relating to covid-19 in the main Lexology newsfeed in order to provide in-house counsel users with practical information and first-hand experiences on how to navigate the current market.

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Lexology Pro Compliance, a unique information platform for chief compliance officers, general counsel and their teams. With a focus on anticorruption, antitrust and data protection -three core compliance areas for businesses around the world, Lexology PRO Compliance provides users with analysis, interviews, legal research, know-how materials, global comparative tools and more.

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Gig Work on the Ballot in California

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In September of 2019, the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 5. Informally known as the “gig-economy bill,” A.B. 5 aimed to address the challenges faced by people who drive for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and other similar companies; so-called gig workers, who are classified as independent contractors, do not receive fundamental worker protections, such as guaranteed minimum wage or paid sick days, no matter how much they drive. “We will not in good conscience allow free-riding businesses to continue to pass their own business costs on to taxpayers and workers,” the bill’s author, the assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, said, following its passage. Six weeks later, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash launched a campaign to combat the bill. A spokesperson for the effort told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re going to spend what it takes to win.”

A.B. 5 was written to codify a 2018 California Supreme Court decision that determined, after a thirteen-year fight, that delivery couriers for Dynamex, a nationwide same-day delivery service, were employees and not independent contractors. The court and the law addressed the issue of gig work in a somewhat blunt fashion. Under A.B. 5, a worker must pass a three-point test in order to count as an independent contractor: she must be free from the “control and direction” of her employer, do work that is “outside the usual course” of the company’s business, and have an independent business of her own in the same industry. Those who don’t pass the test are classified as employees and entitled to certain benefits, including a guaranteed minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, sexual-harassment protections, overtime pay, paid leave, and shared responsibility for payroll taxes.

A.B. 5 was instantly divisive. Certain kinds of workers—doctors, real-estate agents, lawyers, and others—were exempted off the bat, because they often dictate their own fee structures, make more than minimum wage, and have a direct line to customers. But when the bill went into effect, on January 1, 2020, some freelancers, including journalists, photojournalists, composers, and musicians, found themselves out of work. Within a few months’ time, exemptions were granted for freelancers in both journalism and the music industry; since then, more than a hundred other exemptions and limitations to A.B. 5 have been implemented. The law seems to have made a category error, addressing freelance jobs in general rather than gig-work jobs in particular.

Uber and Lyft, the largest ride-hailing firms in California, fought bitterly against A.B. 5, not just in court but through noncompliance. Beginning in January, they simply refused to reclassify their workers, and continued operating as they had before. Last September, Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, told reporters that Uber’s drivers could pass the three-point test. “Just because the test is hard doesn’t mean that we will not be able to pass it,” he said, on a press call. “In fact, several previous rulings have found that drivers’ work is outside the usual course of Uber’s business.” Uber, by this logic, is not really a transportation business—it is, as West put it, “a technology platform for several different types of digital marketplaces.”

In the spring, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, along with a number of city attorneys from across the state, filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft, ordering them to immediately reclassify eligible drivers as employees. In response, both companies filed an appeal, and then threatened to shut down their operations in California. The court granted the companies an extension until November 4th. The day before, Californians will have voted on a new ballot initiative, drafted and promoted by gig-work companies, that carves out an exception within A.B. 5 for app-based services. The initiative, Proposition 22, is not a referendum on A.B. 5, but a tech-industry-specific exemption. Its goal is to prevent drivers and delivery couriers from being reclassified as employees; it is called the “App-Based Drivers as Contractors and Labor Policies Initiative.”

If A.B. 5 is imperfect, imprecise legislation, then Prop. 22 is worse. In arguing for the new law, the ride-hailing companies have emphasized its inclusion of perks for drivers who work more than fifteen hours a week. Prop. 22 gives them a guaranteed wage that is twenty per cent higher than the legal minimum, occupational accident coverage, and a graduated health-care stipend. But critics have noted that the law has abundant loopholes and weaknesses. Prop. 22 counts working hours in terms of “engaged time,” which includes only the period between accepting a ride and dropping a customer off; time spent driving between rides doesn’t count. Some studies estimate that drivers spend thirty per cent of their time idling, cruising, and waiting for customers. Even if a driver racks up more than twenty-four hours of engaged time each week, the health-care stipend will likely be insufficient to cover even the most basic, out-of-pocket health-insurance plans. Meanwhile, as independent contractors, drivers would not receive the benefits, such as paid sick leave and unemployment insurance, that they would have received under A.B. 5. They would also be on the hook for payroll taxes in their entirety. If they were employees, they would split taxes with their employers. By classifying their workers as independent contractors, Uber and Lyft have saved hundreds of millions of dollars in California payroll taxes. In late 2019, the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, released a report estimating that drivers working under Prop. 22 could receive a net wage as low as five dollars and sixty-four cents an hour—less than half the minimum wage in California, and hardly a third of the minimum wage in San Francisco.

In publicly making their case for an exemption from A.B. 5, Uber and Lyft have claimed that Prop. 22 protects drivers’ scheduling flexibility and ability to work for competitors. Uber and Lyft have said that adapting their software to an A.B. 5-compliant model could be its own time-consuming undertaking, during which service might be suspended—leaving drivers out of work. They’ve also previewed more permanent changes. “Shifting to an employment model would put pressure on Uber to consolidate working hours across fewer workers in order to manage costs that are fixed per employee,” Alison Stein, an in-house economist at Uber, wrote, in a recent blog post. “Under an employment model, it is likely that the new norm for Uber drivers would conform with the 40-hour work week which is the standard for full time U.S. employees.”

Such changes, if they were to happen, would not be mandated by law. Even if drivers’ current flexibility is diminished, A.B. 5 does not mention predetermined shift scheduling; it explicitly allows for part-time work, and for workers to spread their time across competitive services. The real issue is that most gig-work business models are predicated on the availability of low-paid, independent contractors who can be compensated according to algorithmically determined, dynamic pricing. Some analysts have estimated that reclassifying millions of eligible drivers as employees would increase operating costs at Uber and Lyft by twenty to thirty per cent. The companies could be incentivized to limit the number of drivers on the platform or to charge more for rides. Currently, neither company is profitable; earlier this year, when Uber acquired Postmates, an UberEats competitor, it was unclear which service would be the loss leader. The obvious endgame for these companies is monopoly, pursued through low prices: Uber and Lyft want to undercut, and then corner, the market on private-transportation services. This suggests that the fight about Prop. 22 is not just about labor rights. It’s also about antitrust.

During the past few months, the ride-hailing companies—along with DoorDash, Instacart, the Republican Party of California, and others—have spent lavishly on television and radio ads, mailers, and billboards in favor of Proposition 22. The campaign has cited support from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (Uber has historically been one of MADD’s largest donors.) The companies have also endorsed the proposition in their apps, using their direct line to customers to campaign for it. These tactics have been unusual. Uber has sent out “Yes on 22” push notifications, and added a number of in-app modules encouraging riders to vote for the initiative, including a graphic of a car with a speech bubble stating “Yes on 22” that appeared during the checkout flow. Earlier this month, on Uber, a pop-up screen asked drivers to commit to voting for Prop. 22. (The options were “Yes on Prop 22” and “OK”; the language on the pop-up has since changed.) Earlier this month, DoorDash distributed free carry-out bags printed with “Yes on 22” to restaurants, and Instacart handed out stickers reading “Yes on 22” to its fleet of shoppers, instructing them to affix them to customers’ orders.

In total, the “Yes on 22” campaign has received more funding—nearly two hundred million dollars—than any other ballot-measure campaign in California history. The opposition, “No on 22,” has raised about fifteen million dollars. It has the political support of the California Democratic Party; state senators Maria Elena Durazo, Nancy Skinner, and Scott Wiener; various California labor unions; and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris. (Harris has been relatively quiet on the issue, perhaps because West, the Uber C.L.O., is her brother-in-law.) Even so, advocates for Prop. 22 have tried to curry favor on the left. In late August, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “I Have a Dream” address, in 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Uber launched an advertising campaign in thirteen cities, with billboards that read, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.”

Earlier this month, some residents of Southern California received political mailers that looked, at first glance, like progressive voter guides. The fliers claimed to have been prepared and sent by a small handful of organizations with names like “Feel the Bern, Progressive Voter Guide,” “Our Voice, Latino Voter Guide,” and “Council of Concerned Women Voters Guide.” The endorsements were consistent with those by the California D.N.C., with one notable difference: the guides supported Proposition 22. SFGate, a sister-site of the San Francisco Chronicle, published an investigation into the mailers and determined that none of the named organizations are legitimate political organizations. At the moment, Yes on 22 has a slight lead in polls: in late September, a U.C. Berkeley poll of fifty-nine hundred would-be voters indicated that thirty-nine per cent would vote yes on Prop. 22, thirty-six said they would vote no, and twenty-five per cent said they were undecided.

California has a rich history of leading on labor rights, and, in that context, some have referred to Proposition 22 as a bellwether. If drivers become employees, they could form an impressive union; on the other hand, the passage of Prop. 22 could resonate across the country for years to come, inhibiting regulation elsewhere. The law could also serve as a blueprint for future entanglements between Silicon Valley and the political system. One of its clauses states that any future amendments to its provisions will require a seven-eighths supermajority vote of the state legislature. A two-thirds majority is more common for ballot propositions; a seven-eighths majority is unheard of, and audacious. Realistically, if Prop. 22 passes, the only way to alter or repeal it will be through a subsequent ballot initiative. The proposition, therefore, is a power play that favors the sort of political muscle that only comes with vast financial resources. The campaign for Prop. 22 may signal a new stage in Silicon Valley’s fight against regulation. Venture capital has given companies like Uber enough money to rework markets. The same money might rework the law.

A previous version of this post incorrectly described the parameters of “engaged time” for rideshare trips.



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How the Gig Economy Is Changing the Working World

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Laura J. Thalacker of Hartwell Thalacker, Ltd, takes a look at the state of the gig economy in the US and how it may be shaped by new legislation.

Over the past decade in the US, the gig economy upended the dynamic between companies and the workers they rely on to provide their goods and services. The traditional US employment relationship provides various rights and guarantees to employees with respect to minimum wage, overtime pay (if applicable), worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, employee benefits, workplace safety standards, non-discrimination, and other legal requirements. These rights and protections are all generally unavailable to gig workers. While a majority of US work arrangements still involve the traditional employer-employee relationship, gig workers (i.e., independent contractors working part-time or full-time on freelance projects, side hustles, and other temporary work) now play a significant and ever expanding role in the economy.

Though often associated with low paying service jobs such as providing rides, personal shopping, or making deliveries, the gig economy is much broader than that. It encompasses an array of blue collar and white collar contract work that may be skilled or unskilled, creative or routine, and reliant on, or independent of, technology. Pay rates and working conditions vary dramatically among gig workers.

Gig work creates opportunities and challenges for businesses and gig workers alike. On the one hand, worker concerns abound over a number of issues including low pay with no guaranteed minimum wage, long hours, a lack of workplace safety standards, economic uncertainty, and limited or no job security. Gig workers also do not have the benefit of employer-provided health insurance, retirement contributions and paid time off.

On the other hand, gig work may provide valued flexibility for workers, allowing them to be their own boss and, at least theoretically, to control when, where and for whom they perform their work. Businesses participating in the gig economy benefit from lower payroll, tax and regulatory costs, and the availability of a geographically diverse pool of workers (particularly in technology-based jobs). In times of economic uncertainty, as supply and demand fluctuate, reliance on gig workers also provides businesses with the flexibility to fill positions on an as-needed, temporary basis. And, as a recent study suggests, gig work may provide other benefits to the overall economy such as increasing entrepreneurship.

Though often associated with low paying service jobs such as providing rides, personal shopping, or making deliveries, the gig economy is much broader than that.

Broad societal factors–personal choice, technological innovation, economic realities and, as we have learned recently in the COVID-19 pandemic, even public health–affect who participates in the gig economy and on what terms. However, it is the legal and regulatory framework that provides the overarching structure and parameters for the gig economy and which, going forward, will continue to play a critical role in shaping its future in the US.

US companies relying on gig workers must navigate a complex, sometime inconsistent, patchwork of laws and regulations governing the employment relationship and independent contractor status. A gig worker can only be lawfully classified as an independent contractor (i.e., not an “employee”) if all applicable legal requirements are satisfied at the federal, state and local levels. In determining a worker’s status under employment and tax laws, different standards and tests apply with little uniformity. The determination of a worker’s status generally focuses, among several factors, on the degree of control the business exercises over the worker. What is a completely lawful arrangement in one jurisdiction may be prohibited in another. Misclassification of workers can result in costly penalties, fines and litigation.

This confusing legal framework, in which lawmakers, regulators, courts and, in some instances, even voters, have a say in worker classification and work conditions, is readily apparent in today’s environment. Seattle, following the lead of New York City, recently adopted a local law creating a minimum pay rate for drivers working for ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.  At the federal level, in September 2020, the US Department of Labor announced a new Proposed Rule that, if adopted, would make it easier for businesses to classify workers as independent contractors under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

In contrast to the potential relaxation of federal standards for worker classification, the California Supreme Court, in its 2018 Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles decision, adopted a test which presumes employment status for all workers unless the hiring entity proves it has met the three elements of the “ABC” test for independent contractor status. In 2019, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), codifying the Dynamex standard, but providing some exceptions and other worker protections. Additional exceptions to employment status were adopted by the California legislature in 2020. Gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers were not exempted from AB 5 and the law would require a change from independent contractor to employment status for many of these workers.

To further complicate matters, in the upcoming November 2020 election, California voters will vote on a ballot measure, Proposition 22, which exempts app-based delivery and transportation (rideshare) companies from AB 5 and allows them to classify their drivers as independent contractors.  Prop. 22, which was initiated and funded by various tech companies, including Lyft, Uber and DoorDash, is opposed by a coalition of labor groups and others, and has become the most expensive ballot measure in California history. If passed by voters, in addition to allowing the classification of app-based rideshare and delivery drivers as independent contractors, Prop. 22 requires the hiring companies to provide certain specified guaranteed minimum pay, benefits and legal rights to the drivers that they normally would not be entitled to as independent contractors.

Given changing laws and regulations, the ongoing pandemic, and other societal factors, gig work will continue to evolve in the US.  It seems that, for the time being, the only real certainty with respect to the gig economy is more uncertainty.



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Gig platforms treated workers ‘unfairly’ during pandemic, study says – POLITICO

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Gig economy platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, Bolt and Glovo failed to compensate workers enough for lost income during the coronavirus pandemic and many companies still don’t offer sick pay despite increased risks of infection, a new study shows.

While many platforms touted lost-income compensation schemes, the study by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork program showed that these were actually only available for a small percentage of workers, who in turn faced much tougher competition for jobs.

And although more than half of platforms now provide some form of sick pay, these schemes often consist of flat-rate payments that in practice fall below the minimum wage and in many cases have proven difficult to access.

Across the board, the study funded by the German government found that despite changes in the relationship between platforms and workers — namely the introduction of sick pay — platforms still will not change contracts or engage with trade unions.

“Covid has changed the discourse around the gig economy completely. Now it is very difficult to claim they are independent workers,” said Funda Ustek-Spilda, the study’s co-author. As debate around gig worker protections has heated up among regulators during the pandemic, platforms have pushed for a so-called third way, which gives workers some protections but keeps them as independent contractors.

As furlough schemes come to an end and unemployment rises, platforms are becoming an increasingly attractive way for workers to earn some extra cash.

Most platforms offered protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, to their workers. Sixty percent of platforms, such as Bolt, Wolt and Deliveroo, also opted for “contact-free services.”

However, these deliveries were only contactless for customers, the study notes, and couriers have a hard time avoiding contact with restaurant workers when they are picking up deliveries or refusing cash payments.

“There are so many complaints from workers saying that the policies were really difficult to access, that they were simply not worth it. [Workers] would go pick up a mask, but they would need to drive halfway across the city,” said Ustek-Spilda.

A spokesperson for Uber said the company “distributed millions of safety products to drivers, including masks, gloves and sanitising spray, and directly reimbursed drivers if they sourced these items themselves.”

Deliveroo said in a statement that the company “provided riders with free face masks and hand sanitiser and provided financial support to riders who work with us regularly and are affected by the virus.” However, Ustek-Spilda said it is impossible to check if platforms are really keeping their promises.

Work hard, earn less

As furlough schemes come to an end and unemployment rises, platforms are becoming an increasingly attractive way for workers to earn some extra cash.

Ustek-Spilda said they had seen a rise in people joining platforms, but this in turn led to fiercer competition for gigs and workers having to spend longer to earn what they used to.

“What we have seen from workers, what they want is pay-related. Their incomes have fallen despite their hours having gone up. Platforms should be offering more, fairer policies for the allocation of pay,” Ustek-Spilda said.

The study found very few examples of platforms compensating workers for pandemic-related loss of income, while less than 1 percent of platforms increased workers’ pay during the pandemic. Most of these schemes were rolled out by large multinational companies, such as Uber, Amazon and Glovo.

“[Platforms] interpret ‘wash your hands’ less in terms of the virus and more in terms of their responsibilities to their workers; throwing that responsibility onto government for financial support and onto individual workers for their own protection from coronavirus,” the authors wrote.

The study also found that many platforms, such as Bolt, had end dates to their financial assistance and sick pay schemes, despite there being no end in sight for the pandemic. Bolt did not comment on whether it would extend its policies beyond this past July.

Fierce competition has broken out as workers compete for delivery gigs | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Few others have said what they are going to do as the pandemic draws on. Food delivery company Wolt said it is extending its two-week financial support scheme for couriers diagnosed with COVID-19 until the end of year, and will “re-address the length of the program closer to December.”

Glovo, a platform based in Spain, said it is reactivating its policy that removed delivery fees for pharmaceuticals in Madrid as the country’s infections continue to climb.

Just over half the platforms surveyed had introduced sick pay for workers.

For example Uber Eats’ scheme in the U.K. gave couriers £30 per day plus an additional payment of up to £100 per week for up to 15 days. The researchers calculated this was at best two-thirds of what a worker would earn even at the national minimum wage. Bolt’s similar policy was equivalent to less than one-third the national minimum wage.

“Institutions, regulators and increasingly consumers are becoming aware that this model is really creating lots of inequalities in the society,” Ustek-Spilda said.

This story has been updated with Deliveroo’s statement. 

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