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Gig-economy workers already knew what coronavirus is teaching the rest of us now

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A pandemic isn’t forever, but it should forever change the way we view our vulnerabilities.

Medically, most of the afflicted will recover.

Economically, most of those affected will rebound.

But the way we work — the way we think about jobs and the jobless — will never be the same. It hasn’t been for a long time.

If today feels abnormal — waiting at home for weeks to be called back to your old workplace — welcome to the new normal. If you’re lucky, you at least have a workplace still waiting for you.

If you think these are tough times, spare a thought for those already living it, and likely to experience it for the rest of their working lives. Who are these people?

Today these people are us, cooped up at home. But in recent years, it has been a lot of “other” people — from the millennial children of boomers who have never known anything but the gig economy, to new immigrants lacking local experience, to older workers lacking retraining.

Bouncing from part-time job to contract job to temporary job. Waiting at home to get a gig offering free food samples to shoppers; or on call to deliver your Amazon parcels; or checking the part-time roster at Tim Hortons for an unscheduled shift.

The new world of work long predates the novel coronavirus. And long after the pandemic disappears, the gig economy will keep growing — and going viral — with all the uncertainty, insecurity and disruption you feel in your bones today.

We may put off the pandemic by bending the curve and displacing the peak. But we cannot bend the old economy back into shape, because the gig curve keeps getting steeper.

The pandemic will one day go away, but the precarious economy won’t. We can no longer ignore either of these global phenomena.

Now that we have your attention and rumination, consider the solution. Like infectious diseases, insecurity is nothing new — it keeps coming back in one form or another.

We all hope there will one day be a vaccine for the pandemic.

But we already have the antidote to precarity: security — income security.

And not just in an emergency.

Income security sounds like something abstract or complicated, but nothing could be more tangible and understandable: If you lose income, you make it up with a guaranteed minimum; if you gain or regain income, you give up your supplement (it’s taxed back).

You want complexity and uncertainty? Consider the current patchwork of social welfare programs for those in need, in economic distress, or without employment income:

Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. There’s also EI, OAS, GIS and ODB — short for Employment Insurance, Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement and Ontario Drug Benefit.

There are many more, but you get the idea. Yet did you truly know — before the pandemic hit and emergency aid magically appeared from Ottawa — that less than one-third of unemployed Ontarians were eligible for jobless benefits?

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What’s the point of EI if it has been whittled away to a boutique insurance program targeting only the most resilient among us? What about those who need it most, but can’t get EI in the same way that people with pre-existing conditions can’t get health insurance in the U.S.?

Few people paid attention when the province’s last Liberal government proposed a three-year pilot program to give the most vulnerable Ontarians an understandable and dependable minimum income. There were no votes in it, because the minimum income isn’t a partisan play.

Yet it’s a practical idea that attracts support from both left and right for its simplicity, efficiency and humanity. It also inspires skepticism from people on all sides of the political spectrum who are suspicious of motives and skeptical of change.

But the world is changing. Even if some politicians prefer disruption to adaptation.

Running to be premier, Doug Ford’s campaign made an explicit promise to retain that minimum income pilot. Upon winning power, Ford broke that promise and barely anyone noticed.

Within days of taking over, he also cancelled a new OHIP+ program that extended major drug coverage to young adults and senior citizens — the beginnings of a universal pharmacare program patterned on our successful medicare OHIP coverage. Many workers enjoy private workplace programs, so why worry about those without — until it affects us?

Don’t blame Ford alone for his thoughtlessness — he did what he thought he could get away with, knowing voters would think little of it. Once he realized people were paying attention to the punitive and perilous nature of sick notes for ill workers — banned by the previous government but restored by Ford — he belatedly banned them again this week.

When people panic, our politicians respond quickly with programs to plug the gaps, as we saw this week from both our federal and provincial governments. What will it take for all of us — and all our politicians — to understand that the time for a minimum income has come?

Politicians don’t really change until people change.

Sitting at home, worrying about when we’ll be back in the workplace, it is perhaps easier for people to grasp the gig economy that leaves so many others out of work so much of the time. The realization may slowly sink in that this is the new normal, not just in times of pandemics but in precarious times.

What happens when life returns to normal? Will it be business as usual for those without work?

Are we going to just withdraw the temporary social safety net extended for this month’s pandemic? Once most of us bounce back, will we leave everyone else to brace for a hard landing in the precarious workplace that never goes away?

Unlike a pandemic, precarity is permanent.



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Bye 9-to-5, hi mental health struggles: the effect of the gig economy

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The gig economy offers both freedom and uncertainty (Getty)

The way we work is changing and it’s not only because of the pandemic. There are a lot of options available to us these days. Too many, in fact. One such alternative is the gig economy

 Essentially, the gig economy means that workers are paid for ‘gigs’ which are short-term, temporary jobs, often referred to as freelance work, as opposed to permanent employment.

Gig economy workers could already be in full-time or part-time employment though, taking on gig work to top up their income and make ends meet. Or, they could be self-employed, filling their day-to-day lives with enough freelance hours to make a living. 

Long gone are the days of simply working nine-to-five.

For some, this fundamental shift in the way we work offers flexibility and freedom to carry out work job-to-job. For others, it brings insecurity, no promise of contractual work and lack of holiday and sick pay.

According to research by the University of Hertfordshire, between 2016 and 2019, the UK gig economy workforce doubled with one in 10 working adults using gig economy platforms in 2019.

But whether it’s moonlighting as a YouTuber or Amazon seller as a side hustle or working full-time juggling a variety of jobs like delivering food for Uber Eats or Deliveroo, how do we know the right time to turn off our ‘work mode’ and boot up our ‘life mode’?

And what is this precarious and ever-changing way of working doing to our mental health?

Research findings from a 2016 study commissioned by the charity, Help Musicians UK, looked into the potential links between the gig economy and mental health.

Looking at over 2,200 musicians working in the gig economy in the UK, 68.5% self-reported depression and 71% anxiety.

Some of the key issues which arose in the study pointed at worries about financial stability, job insecurity, and the requirement to have an online presence and network which exposed individuals to relentless opinion and criticism.

Whilst the phrase gig economy originated from the music industry, the rise of the internet and technological innovations has created a whole new world of opportunity for the way we work and seemingly endless opportunities to fill our home life with more and more work.

But is this tech-enabled gig economy causing burnout because we just don’t know when to stop? Or does it allow us to embrace freedom from traditional corporate roles?

Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, has been taking a look at the social, organizational, and policy implications of the shift towards the online gig economy.

Dr Alex Wood, who has been working on the study, says the gig economy can have both positive and negative consequences on our mental health.

‘We find that one of the things workers like most about this work is the sense of being their own boss as they don’t have to deal with a manager on a day-to-day basis.’ Alex tells Metro.co.uk.

Dr. Alex Wood has been studying the effects of the gig economy (Alex Wood)

‘This autonomy from traditional management is a real positive for many workers but that comes with the stress caused by the algorithmic control of their work by platforms; knowing that if they don’t work hard they’ll get a bad rating and lose your ability to make a living.’

‘This algorithmic control comes with its own risks for mental health as workers work hard for long hours without taking many breaks which can cause burnout.’

Michael Daly, associate professor in Psychology/Behavioural Science at Maynooth University, says the research he and his team have carried out on underemployment and psychological distress has shown a notable increase ‘when a discrepancy emerges between the amount of hours they would like to work and the hours offered by their employer.’

‘Workers also want job and income security, benefits such as health insurance, and opportunities for promotion and career development that tend to be underrepresented in gig economy jobs.’

But what do the people who actually exist in this new way of working think about it?

Phillip Smith, a freelance editor, is fully immersed in the gig economy and says finding the right work-life balance is tough. 

‘There was a period at the start where I was building contacts where you would be repeatedly hitting refresh on your emails begging for replies, that was tough.’

As a freelance editor, Phill Smith is immersed in the gig economy (Phill Smith)

Phill says carving out time for exercise has massively counterbalanced the negativity overworking has caused his mental health.

‘I’ve had a few crazy weeks where I’ve landed too much work and realised I had to pull back. I found that I have to rota in downtime during the week. I have a home studio so I can and have worked every hour of the day so forcing myself to go for a run or do yoga is essential.’

Working full time in the gig economy is one thing, buy what about having a ‘side hustle’ alongside a full-time job?

Amy Harris works as a full-time retail manager but launched her own craft store on Etsy during the Covid pandemic.

‘Having been on furlough for so long it was something that definitely worried me if I would be able to keep it up once back,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

Amy says the opportunity to work on something she’s passionate about brought positivity to her life.

‘It really helped me with my mental health when I wasn’t working and gave me a sense of purpose everyday. I’ve always regretted not pursuing what I studied at university and creating this little business has almost lifted a bit of that guilt and given me a creative outlet.’

Amy Harris said the gig economy allowed her to pursue something she’s passionate about (Amy Harris)

So, what is the future like for the gig economy?

Dr Wood says this way of working has seen and will continue to see growth through the pandemic and beyond.

‘I think the gig economy will emerge from the pandemic even bigger than before with local gig work boosted by the growth of food and retail delivery and remote gig economy boosted by companies looking for more remote workers who can be engaged and controlled without needing to bring them on to the companies’ premises.’

‘Companies are also going to be hesitant to invest in permanent employees in these uncertain times.’

What’s clear is that as the gig economy asserts itself in a post-Covid world, the mental health of workers involved shouldn’t fall by the kerbside as a result.



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MLB mental health crisis: Inside relief pitching gig economy

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Ryan Buchter, 34, has spent almost half his life pitching in professional baseball. In those 15 years, Buchter has been traded four times, released three times, changed organizations 10 times, pitched for teams in 22 cities and only once spent a full season in the majors without being demoted or released. What his itinerant playing record does not show is its cost: a drinking problem, depression and mental health issues that left him so wounded he is speaking out because he knows his story is too prevalent among ballplayers.



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Economy

New Labor Secretary Says Gig Economy Workers Should Be Classified As Employees | Fisher Phillips

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Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh didn’t beat around the bush when he provided his first public thoughts about the gig economy workforce since assuming office. In an interview with Reuters released on Thursday, Walsh said “in a lot of cases, gig workers should be classified as employees.” His comments should come as little surprise to those in the industry who have tracked his career and followed President Biden’s campaign promises to crack down on purported misclassification.

While he tried to strike a balanced tone – noting that in “some cases” gig workers are treated respectfully, and indicating that he didn’t “begrudge” any companies for raising revenue and making profits – his pointed comments send a direct signal to gig economy businesses that the Biden Department of Labor will soon ramp up efforts to force gig workers to be considered employees.

What Can We Expect?

Walsh said that he wants his agency to have conversations with gig economy companies in the coming months in an effort to ensure workers have access to the types of benefits that a typical employee might have: consistent wages, sick time, health care insurance, and similar benefits. While some business leaders have expressed hope that Walsh’s pragmatic streak demonstrated throughout his career as a union leader and mayor would carry over to the worker classification debate, it appears that he will push through an aggressive agenda on behalf of unions and workers.

First up? We can expect to soon see the DOL to formally rescind the Trump-era “gig economy rule” that was set to make it far easier to classify workers as independent contractors. In its place, the agency will no doubt release a new rule that will more closely align with the Biden administration’s aim to target misclassification and ensure as many workers as possible are considered employees. While litigation filed by business groups is ongoing in an attempt to revive the business-friendly version of the rule, gig economy companies cannot rely on this federal lawsuit to be a magic bullet to erase all concerns in this area.

Walsh also noted the success of the pandemic-related unemployment insurance program that ensured gig economy workers who were left without work could regain some of their lost income. “If the federal government didn’t cover the gig economy workers, those workers would not only have lost their job, but they wouldn’t have had any unemployment benefits to keep their family moving forward. We’d have a lot more difficult situation all across the country,” he said. But in expressing admiration for that legislation – which was paid for by massive stimulus spending bills approved by Congress – he didn’t expressly state how he would expect any future extension of UI benefits for gig workers to be funded or managed.

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