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Gig companies want to change the rules about who qualifies as an employee. Here’s why they’re wrong |



The hardware store down the street has to pay minimum wage, the dry cleaner pays unemployment taxes and the diner buys workers’ compensation insurance. Mom-and-pop businesses have managed to make a living while following basic workplace laws for decades. Yet the creative disrupters in Silicon Valley who run Uber, Postmates and other “gig” companies say they can’t make a go of it following the same rules as everyone else.

Instead, gig companies are urging Congress and state lawmakers to create a new category of worker, without the full protections that employees receive. But like all other businesses, gig companies should be required to treat their workers as employees, not as independent contractors or any other designation.

The poor conditions of those working for platform-based or “gig” companies have been well documented: Uber and Lyft drivers have been found to make paltry wages after expenses; DoorDash delivery workers have struggled to get their tips. None have the power to set their rate of pay or most any other term of employment. They’ve been designated as essential and exposed to risk during the pandemic; meanwhile, current high unemployment rates will make it even riskier for gig workers to speak up about safety or other workplace concerns.

In this depressing context, the CEOs of Uber and Postmates are advocating for the need to break out of what they see as the crusty old categories of employee and independent contractor. They say these categories no longer meet the reality of today’s workforce. These companies may be visionary geniuses regarding tech issues, and they’re great on customer service, but when it comes to what workers need, they’re simply wrong.

Gig companies have promoted proposals for a third category of worker; their plans include only the most meager of obligations. Uber, for example, urges that these companies should be bound only by three slender requirements: to not discriminate, to pay into a modest worker benefits fund and to provide insurance for on-the-job injuries.

But legally, being an “employee” means that workers have a broader bundle of rights that their employer must respect. What would gig companies jettison, based on Uber’s proposal? The right to a safe workplace, to minimum wage and overtime pay, to unemployment insurance and employer Social Security contributions and also to form a union and to not face retaliation for asserting any of these rights.

These protections are more relevant than ever today’s working people. Our laws respond to basic human needs that endure regardless of technological change. Why would we change everything about protections we’ve had for nearly a century because some companies — which currently employ around 1% of the workforce — happen to supervise their workers via smartphone? After all, the main difference between Uber and a traditional car service, or Doordash and a traditional pizza delivery outfit, is that customers procure services through an app on their phones instead of making a phone call. But working through an app doesn’t make the work different: The job is still driving people and delivering food, and workers are still performing the work for a more powerful public-facing business that calls the shots.

And what happens when there are future technological changes? What if construction companies start hiring workers via app? Would their workers also be exempt from workers’ compensation, or whatever other laws these companies deem outdated? This isn’t a farfetched question: Already the Massachusetts Attorney General has had to crack down on a company that treated dental hygienists hired through apps as independent contractors. Drivers drive, construction workers build and hygienists clean our teeth. The “gig” economy isn’t so innovative that it requires rewriting the laws that protect everyone.

Gig companies inaccurately assert, as Uber’s CEO did, that our current system “forces every worker to choose between being an employee with more benefits but less flexibility, or an independent contractor with more flexibility but almost no safety net.” This is simply false. No law prohibits part-time jobs or flexibility for employees. In fact, over 23 million wage and salary workers were employed part time in 2019 — treated as employees, with the wage, workplace safety and other key protections of employees, despite their part-time status. And plenty of employees don’t have rigid work schedules. This is especially evident during the pandemic: Many people have been working from home, getting their jobs done in flexible chunks of time, including after kids are asleep. They’re still employees.

Tech companies argue for separating our social safety net from employment, and most of us who care about workers would agree: We need far more robust protections for everyone, including universal health care unrelated to employment. But the answer isn’t eliminating the workplace protections we already have. In essence, gig companies want to redistribute the costs of the safety net away from themselves and toward workers and all of us. Indeed, right now, regular employee unemployment insurance benefits are paid for by employer taxes. Meanwhile, the temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that many gig workers are receiving is federally funded — paid by all of us collectively because Uber, Lyft and their peers passed the buck. Why should that be the case?

Policy decisions should not be made on the basis of a few large companies’ self-interest. Rather, we should act based on what’s best for society, which includes ensuring decent, dignified treatment for the people whose work makes our country run. That necessarily involves placing some obligations on companies.

This is why the hardware store has to pay minimum wage, why the dry cleaner pays unemployment taxes and why the diner buys workers’ compensation insurance. It’s also why Uber and other gig economy companies should not be exempted from doing the same.

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Cardinal Nation happy for Tony La Russa’s new gig




ST. LOUIS – Former Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa is returning to manage the Chicago White Sox. La Russa and World Series wins are no strangers here in St. Louis.

Cardinals broadcaster Mike Claiborne, a La Russa friend, believes the Hall-of-Famer will do well in Chicago.

“He’s got a good team to work with; some good young talent. They need a little leadership,” he said.

The White Sox and Cardinals are expected to meet in interleague play next season.

“Everybody wanted to see Tony do well,” Claiborne said. “And I want to see him do well, except when he plays the Cardinals.”

Claiborne said he texted Tony and congratulated him. Tony replied: “It should be fun.”

At Ballpark Village, there was well-wishes from fans.

“He’s a good guy,” said Armando Sierra. “He’s done good for baseball and for him to get another chance, why not?”

La Russa, 76, managed the Cardinals from 1996 to 2011.

“You’re never too old; you’re never too old,” Sierra said. “That’s just a number.”

Down the street at the Midwestern, more well wishes from Cardinal supporters who believe La Russa will get a warm welcome when the White Sox play at Busch Stadium.

“Probably get the reaction that (David) Freese got when he came back; everybody cheered for him,” said Cardinals fan John Pizzitola.

Claiborne added: “Warm would be an understatement. It will be seismic for sure.”

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A new app helps gig workers find where to whizz




As businesses tighten entry restrictions because of the pandemic, delivery and ride-share drivers are struggling more than ever to find open and usable restrooms. An app, playfully named Whizz, is trying to help. Described as being developed “by gig workers for gig workers,” Whizz is a bathroom finding app that is partnering with restaurants to provide gig workers with some much-needed relief.

The app displays partnered restaurant locations on a map, currently limited to Southern California and some locations in Arizona and Nevada. Users pick a nearby restaurant and show an employee their phone to gain access to their bathroom. While several public bathroom finder apps already exist, Whizz’s strategy is different in that it’s seeking partnerships with restaurants to provide not only bathroom access, but also deals for users of the app.

Whizz attempts to incentivize restaurants with free advertising in exchange for bathroom access and promotional offers. When you pull up a partnered restaurant in the app, it displays a coupon for a certain percentage off an item or meal. Whizz’s first partnership is with Waba Grill, a rice bowl chain, which offers 20 percent off a chicken bowl and drink through the app.

This interest in partnerships is what makes Whizz’s approach potentially more effective than other bathroom finders, which tend to rely on public bathrooms or large stores like Walmart or Target. Co-founders Keith Crudupt and Robert Logan, who have both driven for Uber, noted that delivery drivers are often denied restroom access, even at restaurants they’re running deliveries for. Logan said he always found this dynamic bizarre: “I’m helping your business, but you won’t let me use your restroom.”

“By partnering with restaurants, our users don’t have to come in and feel like they’re trespassing or doing something sneaky,” Logan said. “They can come in and just be straightforward and go use the restroom.”

Bathroom access is a problem that extends far beyond gig workers. Lack of access to clean, private restrooms has always been an issue for people experiencing homelessness, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. There’s also the problem of finding accessible restrooms for people with mobility aids and gender-neutral or single-occupant restrooms for trans and gender-nonconforming people. Truly public restrooms are few and far between, and among those that exist, it’s even harder to find ones that are hygienic and in full working order.

Though the app was developed with gig workers in mind, it doesn’t verify that you are one, and Whizz’s site also pitches its usefulness for travelers and “soccer moms.” Because anyone can download the app, would a person who is homeless be allowed access to a restaurant’s bathroom if they showed their phone, or would they still be turned away depending on their appearance? Logan and Crudupt said their main focus has been on gig workers because they’ve been drivers themselves, but they are “open to being a resource for homeless people.”

Logan, who has a background in social work, says he has a desire to help the community at large. The app’s launch had actually been tabled when the pandemic started, but after seeing articles about gig workers urinating in alleys, Logan and Crudupt realized “there’s a need and we should help out.” They’re working on the basics of the app’s function for now, but they have ambitions for gaining more partners and expanding their map beyond the Southern California area. They eventually want to update the app with information about parking, hours, wheelchair access, and changing tables.

The two have been personally traveling to each location on the map, including nearly 200 Waba Grills, to ensure its accuracy. They noted that in addition to the struggle of balancing jobs with app development, it’s hard for them as a Black-owned business, and as older men, to get recognized and raise funds for the app.

“Can I use your restroom?” shouldn’t be a question that anticipates hurdles. By adding the legitimacy of a business partnership, Whizz has the potential to help people who might otherwise be turned away. As Vice points out, this is a problem that needs a societal solution. But for now, there’s Whizz.

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Hightower: Should gig giants keep gigging workers? | Columns




There’s a mournful Peggy Lee song that asks the existential question: “Is that all there is?” Some progressives are asking that when looking at whether to vote this year — Biden or Trump … is that all there is? 

First, for me, that’s an easy choice if we want to have even a small chance of making any little-d democratic progress in the next decade or two. Second, no, that’s not all there is. Just scroll down the ballot in most voting districts and you’ll find a choice of solid progressive contenders in congressional, state legislative, city council, sheriff and school board races, and other races for grassroots offices, all of which offer tremendous potential for both big policy changes and for expanding America’s progressive movement.

But wait; there’s more! Scroll a bit lower and you’re likely to discover direct democracy  allowing ordinary people — you and me — to make our own policies and laws, rather than hoping that legislators and lobbyists will do right by us. These are “ballot initiatives” — policy ideas and procedural changes that are put directly to voters in a state, county or city. Most are put on the ballot by groups that get enough voters to sign petitions demanding that a particular proposal be listed.

It’s not an easy process, but it has become a more common legislative tool, as shown by the number and variety of propositions on next Tuesday’s ballots. Just counting statewide initiatives, voters in 32 states will be making their will known on a total of 120 ideas. They include such solidly progressive actions as Arizona’s proposal to raise taxes slightly on the superrich to cover an overdue raise in pay for schoolteachers. They also include such blatantly regressive schemes as California’s Prop 22, the attempt by Uber, Lyft and other gig giants to strip health care from their low-wage workers.

Especially prominent in this year of pandemic disease, mass job losses and ever-spreading inequality are citizen initiatives to start restoring worker rights and income. These illustrate the importance of direct ballot lawmaking: When public officials and corporate hierarchies snub people’s needs or carelessly harm them, the initiative is a democratic path for asserting The People’s will. If lawmakers don’t act, the people can!

Here are some big public policies people clearly want but lawmakers consistently ignore: Pay for family leave time; restrict the power of Big Money in our elections; stop rent gouging by greedy corporate landlords; assert real public oversight to stop police abuses.

Now the good news: You don’t have to vote for Sen. Foghorn or Gov. Blowhard in the futile hope that they’ll ever work to pass such progressive policies. Rather, each of the above ideas is on the ballot next Tuesday in various states across the country — do-it-yourself democracy in action!

Of course, democracy can be messy, and bypassing the backroom chicanery of legislative bodies doesn’t necessarily bypass the insider power of Big Money. But at least ballot initiatives force moneyed interests to do their avaricious dirty work outside, allowing us commoners to glimpse their greed.

That’s certainly the case of a money-soaked mega-fight underway in California over Prop 22. Uber, Lyft and other multibillion-dollar behemoths have amassed their billions by claiming that their hundreds of thousands of workers are independent contractors, not employees. Therefore, say the corporations, they don’t have to provide health care or comply with basic labor protections. This year, though, a new California law rejected this blatant corporate ruse, at last allowing employees to get the essential benefits due to them. However, rather than do right by the people who do their work, a cabal of these giants has ponied up more than $200 million to try ramming through Prop 22. This self-serving corporate ballot measure openly asserts that they’re above the law, entitled to exploit their low-paid, no-benefit workforce (and a study says 8 in 10 of gig workers are people of color). If you wonder why our fabulously rich nation keeps sinking deeper into self-destructive inequality, look no further than Prop 22. It’s such a piece of plutocratic nastiness that, to get their way, the handful of profiteers behind it are running the most expensive and one of the most underhanded PR campaigns in the history of ballot initiatives.

For more information, go to the Gig Workers Rising website.

Jim Hightower is a columnist, political activist and author who served as commissioner of Texas Department of Agriculture.

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