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California’s Prop. 22 could affect the gig economy nationwide

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California’s Proposition 22 is an initiative sponsored by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig work platforms. It would exempt app-based ride-hailing companies and food delivery companies from a new state law that requires them to classify drivers as employees instead of independent contractors.

Gig companies have poured nearly $200 million into the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign, making it the most expensive ballot initiative in state history. They’ve threatened to leave California or dramatically raise prices if it doesn’t pass, and a loss could embolden other states to insist that app companies hire their drivers.

I spoke with Sam Harnett, a reporter for KQED in San Francisco. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Sam Harnett, a reporter for KQED in San Francisco.
Sam Harnett (Photo courtesy of Gundi Vigfusson)

Sam Harnett: Gig companies are saying, “If this doesn’t pass, we’re going to have to potentially suspend service in California.” And if it passes, Uber, Lyft and the rest of the gig companies will be able to continue operating the way that they were operating before. Their workers would be contractors, [which] means they wouldn’t have basic employee protections like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation. And the way this proposition is written, that will be pretty much locked in. There’s this seven-eighths provision, which means it would take seven-eighths of the Senate and Assembly in California to make any changes to this proposition. And local jurisdictions, cities and counties couldn’t make any changes to give gig workers more benefits.

Molly Wood: Do these same restrictions, this un-overturnability, does that apply even if the companies are forced to classify their workers as employees?

Harnett: Well, if Proposition 22 doesn’t pass, workers will become employees, but these gig companies still have billions of dollars, and they’re going to keep fighting this tooth and claw. I mean, they see this as an existential threat to their business model. So on the one side, if Prop 22 passes, the gig model looks pretty solid. I mean, maybe something federally could lead to a change. Maybe there could be a lawsuit over something procedurally in the proposition, like maybe that seven-eighths provision I mentioned. But it’s going to be there. On the flip side, if Proposition 22 doesn’t pass, you can expect another salvo from the gig companies pretty quickly.

Wood: This is a California ballot proposition, but I wonder what implications could it have if it doesn’t pass for the gig economy nationally?

Harnett: Oh, huge. I think everybody, nationally and internationally, is looking at this case. Over the last couple years, you’ve seen the California Supreme Court, the California legislature and now the attorney general go after these companies and tell them, “Your workers are actually employees, and they need basic protections.” And if the gig companies are successful in using the ballot box to defy the three branches of government and maintain their business model, I think a lot of other states, and a lot of other countries, are going to see that as, “Well, the gig companies, they won.”

Wood: And if they don’t win, would that embolden maybe states and localities who have wanted to do something about this model to pass their own laws?

Harnett: Absolutely. In Massachusetts, they’re moving, pushing back on gig companies in a similar way. And in other states, they’re now trying to follow California’s path. And I think a victory for labor if Prop. 22 doesn’t pass, I think will ripple. And again, the companies would have to then classify workers as employees, and the rubber is going to hit the road, and we’re going to see how that all plays out.

Wood: These companies, of course, have poured a ton of money into this campaign, and they’re using their platform for that campaigning. Can you talk about some of the tactics that they’re using when you’re actually using apps like Postmates and Uber and Lyft these days?

Harnett: They got $185 million behind this, but they also have apps in hundreds of thousands or millions of voters’ pockets. So if you’ve taken Uber or Lyft, you’ve probably gotten a pop-up that has had messaging about Proposition 22. And if you work for these apps, you’re also getting pop-ups and material inside the apps urging you to vote yes on Prop 22. DoorDash has sent several million pro-Prop. 22 delivery bags for restaurants, which then the DoorDash workers have to carry the food to customers in those bags. And then Uber has a pop-up for riders that tells riders that their drivers support Prop. 22 and to talk to drivers about it. So these companies are leveraging their apps and they’re leveraging their workers in a way that has never been seen before in an election fight.

Wood: In your reporting, what are you hearing from drivers? Do you have a sense of how they’re feeling about all this?

Harnett: I’ve been covering this for five or six years, and drivers actually have always told me pretty much the same thing, which is they want to be their own boss, they want to be independent, they want to be flexible, but they also want basic protections, or at least enough money to get those basic protections. So a lot of drivers, they get these surveys that ask them if they want to be contractors, and it’s kind of confusing, because they do want to be contractors, but it’s kind of an aspirational desire to be contractors. They want to be contractors who actually make enough money to pay for health insurance, who actually make enough money to work when they want to work. And right now, what drivers are saying is that the rates haven’t been good in years, but they’ve been declining since the beginning. They’re frustrated. So I’d say workers want autonomy, independence and flexibility, but they want some basic protections.

Rideshare drivers demonstrate against rideshare companies Uber and Lyft during a car caravan protest on August 6, 2020 in Los Angeles.
Rideshare drivers demonstrate against rideshare companies Uber and Lyft during a car caravan protest on Aug. 6 in Los Angeles. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The Guardian calls Proposition 22 an initiative with “the fate of an industry” riding on it. Even more than that, it’s an attempt to figure out a new framework for labor and hiring in an economy where apps like this do employ so many workers. And in some ways, like Sam Harnett said, a lot of drivers, analysts and labor experts think there should be a third way, something in between very regimented 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. employment that at least comes with benefits, and total freedom and flexibility — to die with no health insurance or miss rent if you get sick.

The delivery and ride-hail companies are positioning Proposition 22 as sort of a third way since the drivers would stay independent contractors but get some small benefits, like accident insurance and stipends to use for health insurance that go up the more hours someone drives. And, of course, it’s hard to forget that this proposition is a total end-run around a state law that the companies in question just decided to ignore. Nevertheless, opinions on Proposition 22 are fairly evenly split, even though many Californians are already voting.

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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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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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