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How to humanise the gig economy

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Can the likes of Amazon, Uber and Instacart engineer solutions that spare workers from bearing the brunt of the pandemic?

By Gavin Mueller, a Lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture and the University of Amsterdam and the author of Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought unprecedented changes in the economy. With offices across the world shuttered, millions of people are now dutifully working from their homes and isolating themselves from others to reduce contagion. However, anyone who has followed stay-at-home orders has experienced a deep irony: the benefits of home isolation are dependent upon others who don’t have the option.

Package and food delivery are the most visible reminders that our comfort and safety comes at the expense of poorly paid and precarious workers (now dubbed “essential”), along with workers in kitchens and warehouses who supply them — jobs with some of the highest risk for contagion.

In a further irony, many of these physically demanding and dangerous jobs fall under the aegis of tech companies: Amazon, Uber, Instacart. Can these innovators engineer solutions that spare workers from bearing the brunt of pandemic risk?

For years, these companies promised automation as the solution to issues with profitability and unhappy workers; now, the pandemic is the latest problem to be solved with robot armies just over the horizon. But there are reasons to be skeptical. Not only have dreams of full automation repeatedly come up short — Amazon and Tesla abandoned recent efforts at fully automated facilities, and Uber has given up on autonomous cars — but increased automation in the forms of digital tracking, machine learning, robots, and algorithmic guidance have already succeeded — in making work more dangerous.

One of the great misrepresentations in visions of the future of work is the belief that Big Tech’s investments in automation, for good or ill, will see machines performing the jobs currently occupied by human beings. Yet for all the hype around artificial intelligence and robots, high-tech companies such as Amazon continue to rely on large numbers of human workers that, while often poorly remunerated, possess manual and mental dexterity that advanced technology struggles to match.

During the pandemic, Amazon increased its human workforce by over 50% in 2020, surpassing a million employees. It tracks every detail of the labour process through its scanners and, increasingly, wearable technology. Workers receive instructions on how fast to walk in warehouses and what order to pick items, and are given continual feedback from managers and machines on their speed, or “rate.” Comprehensive AI-driven surveillance is now being rolled out to Amazon’s burgeoning fleet of sub-contracted delivery drivers in the name of enhanced safety, though sceptical drivers anticipate further pressures to meet strict deadlines.

The result is efficiency — at the cost of misery. Amazon boasts an injury rate double the national average, according to media reports, with even more injuries at more automated facilities, where machines set the pace. Some workers complain about anxiety and nightmares over “rate”, leaving them likelier to burn out and fuelling turnover in warehouses. One of the rallying cries of Amazon workers advocating for better conditions is “I am not a robot!”

This managerial double pincer movement, of detailed surveillance of the workers tied to increased technological control over the labour process, originates in the experiments in “scientific management” by Frederick W. Taylor over a century ago. While Taylor’s methods often fell short of good science, the broad parameters of his project continue today. Tightly monitored work processes give management insight into where efficiencies can be produced, typically by eliminating downtime and speeding up worker activity. The ultimate goal is that work activities are controlled by management and its technological apparatus, rather than the workers themselves.

Amazon’s approach to employee safety became a public health issue during the pandemic, with numerous outbreaks at its warehouses. In turn, workers have become more outspoken about their conditions, and strikes are on the rise, with notable actions in Minneapolis, Milan, and a series of work stoppages across Germany during Black Friday. Amazon has heavily publicized its reforms, which include small bonuses for frontline workers and heightened cleanliness standards. Meanwhile it positions itself as the solution to vaccine distribution in the U.S. But allowing Amazon a toehold in the health infrastructure means the spread of a work culture that treats workers as disposable cogs.

As the pandemic rages on, it’s hard to imagine a world without online shopping and home delivery apps. But there is no reason that the essential workers who make them possible should risk life and limb. Workers should be able to organize and to have a say in the conditions of their work. Beyond increased pay and benefits, this might mean limiting the spread of technologies of surveillance and automation, and even reducing the backbreaking pace of work. It might even mean returning to the more humane times before one-day delivery became the norm. If we want to face the crisis together and get the pandemic under control, the conveniences of a few cannot come at the expense of the well-being of the many.

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Gig companies want workers back and are paying bonuses in Colorado

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To rev up its workforce, Uber pledged this week to spend $250 million to boost incomes of drivers nationwide. While details on how this would roll out were slim, an Uber spokeswoman shared what it means for Denver drivers: $30.56 an hour.

That’s the median hourly rate — not including tips! — for drivers who spend 20 hours a week on the app and not just engaged with a customer, according to Uber, which saw its ride-sharing business plummet 80% during the early months of the pandemic. 

Right now, there are more riders than drivers, so Uber is trying to get its gig workforce to return. The more local demand, the higher the rate. And Denver, apparently, has high demand. Its hourly rate is above Chicago’s $28.73, Austin’s $26.66 and Miami’s $26.05. 

Don’t miss the free weekly newsletter on Colorado jobs and unemployment. Sign up: ColoradoSun.com/getww

“Denver is the only figure I have for Colorado, but wanted it to be clear that we are seeing demand across the state so drivers may see a boost even on the outskirts of town,” said Kayla Whaling, an Uber spokeswoman. 

That includes bonuses for completed trips on top of the hourly rates. The temporary boost is for new and existing drivers who return to their gigs and will “be in place for the next several months,” Whaling added.

Over at Lyft, an increase in demand for rides also has the company providing incentives to drivers “who are busier and earning more than they were even before the pandemic,” a spokesperson said. The average wage right now, including tips, in Denver is $45 per hour.

Lyft didn’t share specifics on incentives, but according to TheRideShareGuy.com, Lyft has been messaging drivers that it’ll pay a $250 bonus for drivers in Minneapolis who complete 20 rides a week.

Bonuses and pay are still a touchy topic for gig-economy critics, who feel the base pay needs to be raised. Some reminded us that Uber, Lyft and DoorDash spent $200 million last year fighting California’s Proposition 22. The failed initiative would have reclassified gig workers as employees and improved pay and benefits for many.

As we now know, roughly 260,000 self-employed or gig-working Coloradans have filed for the special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, since mid-March 2020. Normally, gig workers don’t qualify for unemployment pay, but federal lawmakers included the group in the coronavirus stimulus plans. Currently, most are eligible for a minimum of $223 in PUA unemployment plus an extra $300 weekly bonus. 

To date, Colorado has distributed $1.29 billion in PUA payments since the pandemic began. As of March 27, about 87,880 PUA users were still unemployed in Colorado. 

→ No dull moments for Dashers: DoorDash’s April rewards program pays out an extra $300 for those who complete 600 deliveries during the month. That’s 20 deliveries per day for 30 days straight!

→ Better paying gigs? An effort to get DoorDash Dashers to reject lower-paying deliveries in order to get the app’s algorithm to offer a higher base payment has gained traction. But for #DeclineNow to work, more Dashers must play along. There’s been mixed results, reports Bloomberg. >> STORY

How 71,750 jobs ended up on the state’s official job board

Anyone receiving benefits through Colorado’s unemployment system knows about ConnectingColorado.com. And if you don’t, that may be what’s holding up your benefits. You’re required to register with the state’s official job board.

But do you know how those 71,750 jobs, as of Friday, ended up on the site? I explored the job board in a story this week that anyone looking for a job or looking to fill a job needs to pay attention to. 

The jobs come from two main sources: DirectEmployers Association and the state’s local workforce centers. DirectEmployers works with 900 employers nationwide and scrapes their websites directly for jobs. Workforce centers get them from local employers. 

But don’t let that job board be your only option. Some jobs were duplicated, like the one I mentioned a few weeks ago that was posted 116 times. And many more jobs aren’t even listed. 

Read the story to find out more: Thousands of new openings post to Colorado’s official job board each week. Here’s where they come from.

→ Now Hiring: Fidelity Investments has 375 positions to fill in Colorado. That’s on top of adding 500 in the state last year. The greatest need? Financial consultants and customer service representatives. >> APPLY

→ Got a $5 million idea? The Colorado Governor’s Office has partnered with ZOMALAB and other education-minded organizations to challenge thinkers to come up with a better something to help our state’s 12 to 24 year olds get the job skills needed for quality careers. If you know what that something could be, turn it into a pitch and present it to SyncUp Colorado by June 1. >> DETAILS 

Paycheck loans running out?

Reports of the federal Paycheck Protection Program running out of money began showing up this week as approved loans reached $223.5 billion as of April 4 (out of roughly $290 billion available). About $4.2 billion has so far been approved for 64,285 small businesses in Colorado. 

But is the federal program for forgivable small business loans really running out? There’s still roughly $60 billion available. Last year, when Paycheck loans debuted, small (and some pretty large) businesses, including The Colorado Sun, snapped up the $349 billion in a few weeks. The rules changed to target smaller businesses, but when the program ended in August, $100 billion still was unclaimed.

This year’s round of $284 billion had a similarly slow rollout. The American Rescue Plan, passed in March, added another $7 billion and extended the deadline to May 31. 

But now, it could run out, said Nim Patel, chief strategy officer with the Colorado Enterprise Fund, which works with local businesses that aren’t able to get a traditional business loan.  

“The weekly disbursements have been between $10 billion and $15 million the last four weeks. That says the money might last another four to six weeks max,” Patel said in an email. “Seems like the money will run out before May 31 but it’s anyone’s guess as to exactly when.”

CEF will continue accepting applications until the money runs out, he added. 

“We know there are many Colorado small businesses who have been unsuccessful accessing PPP through traditional channels and we are ready to help them out however we can,” he said.

→ Still time for a second PPP: Business owners who haven’t applied for a second loan can still do so through May 31, if money is still available. But better get on it soon. Samantha Wranosky, a Fort Collins sole proprietor who got her first one in February, checked with her bank and learned it’s not taking new applications for several weeks. She ended up applying for a second loan at another bank. “I’m glad I went ahead and went to a different bank,” she said.

→ A pause on entertainment venue loans? A day after its launch, the portal for venues hoping for a piece of the $16.2 billion federal relief remained closed Friday “due to technical difficulties.” The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant offers aid to operators of theaters, museums and other live venues forced to close last year because of COVID-19. Check back, though, because the SBA is working with the vendor in order to reopen it as soon as possible. >> Apply

IDme delays continue

IDme, the tool used by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to verify identities of unemployed applicants, had a “More than 5 hours” wait for users on March 31, 2021. CDLE is requiring everyone on unemployment to go through the IDme verification process. (Screenshot provided by Dahlia Weinstein)

While I’m receiving fewer emails this week from unemployed Coloradans complaining of long waits to get their identities verified, the wait is still long for some. This is a new requirement for those on unemployment, part of the state’s fight against fraudsters. If you don’t pass, you don’t get paid.

Mo from Highlands Ranch shared his experience with the state’s ID verifier, IDme, sent at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday:

April 5: Waited more than eight (8) hours….No trusted referee.

April 6: Waited more than 7 hours and 45 minutes…No trusted referee

April 7: Waited more than eight (8)…No trusted referee.

Today (April 8th) as I’m dictating this email note, I’ve been waiting since 5:30 a.m. with no trusted referee in sight.

As of Friday afternoon, an IDme spokesman told me that the wait is now 4 hours for a trusted referee, which is the additional step IDme takes when a user’s data — including a selfie — isn’t enough. This usually involves a video call to prove you are who you say you are. (But when everything goes smoothly, the automated process takes about 15 minutes.)

The delays started as more states joined IDme as customers and then dumped hundreds of thousands of unemployed folks onto the system. Waits of 30 minutes dragged on to 5 hours or more. IDme’s CEO Blake Hall even shared a chart last week showing us the backlog. 

And news stories nationwide have reported on the delays hitting North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona

One thing I have heard are tips from readers, CDLE staff and IDme:

  • Check your credit report and fix out-of-date or incorrect information
  • Make sure documents uploaded are clear
  • Increase the brightness on your phone’s camera when taking a selfie
  • Don’t stop after uploading your ID. There are at least nine steps
  • Start with a computer, then switch to a mobile device for the photo
  • More tips are on the private Facebook group page where 8,200 Coloradans are helping each other figure out unemployment benefits. 

And this tip coming in from Twitter: Complain to IDme’s official Twitter account. A Twitter user told me she did just that after seeing the 5-hour wait. IDme’s social staff got her through the system on April 1, she certified for her benefits on Sunday and was paid on Thursday.

IDme appears to be paying attention. In my own effort to help folks asking about IDme on Twitter, the company replied publicly: “We can look into this for you! Please DM us the email address associated to your IDme account for further assistance.”


Thanks for reading through another column. I keep it going as long as readers are interested so if you like What’s Working, share it with someone you know. Keep me posted on your job or hiring situation, tag me on Twitter and don’t forget to follow up when your issue has been resolved. Stay cool! ~tamara



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How Proposition 22 Blocks Cities and Counties From Giving Hazard Pay to Gig Workers

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Haney added that Proposition 22 has given gig companies legal grounds to sue and block an ordinance like this if they decide they don’t want to comply with it.

“Sometimes, as a local government, we are preempted by the states or feds, but usually when that’s the case, another regulatory body or the state Legislature is taking up the responsibility,” Haney said. “What’s the case here is that some regulations that were written into law by the companies and passed by the voters have made it impossible for anyone to provide more extensive and stronger regulations.”

Rey Fuentes, a legal fellow at the Partnership for Working Families, said California cities and counties have a history of pioneering progressive pro-worker legislation, like San Francisco’s paid sick leave program, which he said was the first of its kind in the nation.

Fuentes said it’s important for municipalities to test new policies out so that there are models for state and federal laws. “This allows for the experimentation that I think is so vital to our democracy and to developing good policy,” he said.

While grocery stores are pushing back on the hazard pay by temporarily closing locations and threatening legal action, gig companies don’t have to. Proposition 22 stops local governments from even trying to get higher wages or better benefits for gig workers, halting local experimentation with policy that could help the state’s growing number of app-based gig workers who are denied employee benefits and protections.

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