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Workers’ Rights in the Gig Economy

May 29, 2019


How the Gig Economy Puts Workers At Risk

by Dillon Jones

Law Students on Workers’ Rights Series

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

The biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future are adapting to the impacts of evolving technology and the gig economy. The gig economy, or the labor market comprised of short-term contracts and freelance work instead of permanent employment, is growing tremendously. With Uber, Lyft, Handy, TaskRabbit, Postmates, and other companies, individuals such as taxi drivers are switching from permanent employment to gig economy work.

As a student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a fellow at Cornell’s Worker Institute, I have researched the impact these apps have had on workers in the gig economy. By analyzing first-hand reports, employment data, and workers’ rights due to short-term contracts, freelance work, and work stemming from advances in technology, my colleagues and I at the Worker Institute have found that workers’ rights are at risk.

In order to find out the exact challenges these employees face, we conducted a survey questioning two hundred and twenty New York State individuals who work on app-based platforms. Twelve of these individuals were surveyed in a semi-structured interview. Additionally, worker reviews and salaries were compiled.

When combining the data with our research, we have identified five glaring challenges with the gig economy worker experience.

Workers

  1. Experience low and unstable earnings and a lack of benefits, requiring reliance on second or third jobs, other family members’ incomes, and various types of public aid
  2. Experience a range of dangerous health and safety hazards on the job, most of which are uncompensated
  3. Suffer from evaluations based primarily on consumer ratings of workers’ performance, with no recourse for workers to appeal disciplinary actions
  4. Are negatively impacted by automated matching between workers and consumers and other communication asymmetries
  5. Cannot make a living wage through their app-based work (only 13% can do so)

The findings reveal that 27% of workers use two apps in order to improve their earnings and 35% of surveyed app workers use more than two apps.

Furthermore, delivery workers, home service workers, and ride-sharing workers have challenges which stem from the work they perform. Specifically, delivery workers doing work for UberEATS, Postmates, Caviar, or Doordash are exposed to the risk of severe injuries which can prevent them from earning a paycheck or receiving health insurance. Home service workers such as home care workers and cleaners engaged through Handy, TaskRabbit, or care.com are vulnerable to harassment, exposure to toxic chemicals, and risk of injuries. Lastly, as a result of ride-sharing app’s automated matching system, app workers face the issue of dealing with customers who are belligerent or make them feel unsafe. Women driving for Uber have reported sexual harassment but cannot be sure that they will not see the same customers again due to this automated matching system.

The evolution of technology in the workplace threatens employees not just in New York or the United States but globally as well. Britain’s Office for National Statistics reports that “some 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation.” While routine and repetitive tasks are at the highest risk to be replaced by technological innovation, skilled workers are also at risk. Jonty Bloom, BBC’s business correspondent, states that “more and more complicated tasks can and are being broken down into a series of simple tasks, each of which can be done by a machine that needs no training, holidays, tea breaks or sick leave.”

While this automation may not directly infringe on workers’ rights, companies, managers, or supervisors can utilize the threat of automation to cause employees to not report abuses or grievances for fear of their job being replaced. Hence, workers may be less likely to report violations to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the National Labor Relations Board.

In order to combat the previously stated challenges, lawyers must continue to advocate on behalf of workers’ rights to grant them the protections they lawfully deserve.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Dillon Jones’s insightful research into the gig economy shows the challenges workers face in an increasingly contract economy. When over 60% of workers report using two or more apps to increase their earnings, wages are a significant issue for gig economy workers. And many federal and state protections, including sexual harassment laws and workplace discrimination laws, don’t apply to workers defined as independent contractors. Fortunately, some local laws, such as the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in New York City, provide strong protections for freelance workers, including double damages for nonpayment or retaliation. However, until the law catches up with the gig economy, workers will find their rights at risk.

Dillon Jones graduated from Cornell University in 2019. A researcher at the Worker Institute at Cornell, Jones contributed to research on the impact of the gig economy on workers and the labor force. Jones joins the University of Michigan Law School as part of the class of 2022. The Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship recognizes Jones as its runner up for 2019.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients.

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