Published: January 28, 2020

Gig workers drive labor changes

Got gig workers? A state law could signal a new trend, and drive employers to change how they approach labor.

Gig workers are those paid by the “gig” — by the task or project. They’re independent contractors who tend to work by serial short-term, temporary, or freelance work. Examples include Uber and DoorDash drivers, “correspondent” (freelance) journalists such as yours truly, photographers, musicians, and Airbnb hosts. Gig work can provide full-time, part-time, or supplemental income.

Given rising consumer demand for delivery and on-demand services, even some traditional employers are beginning to supplement their labor forces with gig workers.

Pros and cons. Pros include a flexible work schedule and independence (for some of us working in your pajamas is a big bonus). An obvious pro for employers is paying for labor only when you need it, without the overhead.

Worker cons include unreliable and sometimes insufficient income, and lack of benefits. With high healthcare costs, that’s a big con.

The gig economy is surging. Gig worker support site explains the growing gig workforce as partly, if not largely, app-driven. Apps are replacing people as middlemen, connecting consumers directly with task-providers. Users like the convenience of technology platform companies such as Uber, TaskRabbit, Etsy and Airbnb, and are increasingly using them to address both daily and occasional needs.

Another explanation by economists from several sources for the rapidly growing gig economy is a shift in the way we think of work. We don’t know if technology drove this shift in worker mindset, or the other way around, but either way the labor market is slowly ditching the traditional model of the employer-employee relationship. More workers expect flexibility, balance, fulfillment.

The onus is on employers of all sizes to figure out how to provide that.

Potential 21st century policies. Given this emerging workforce reality, employers, business experts and, apparently, a few local and state governments are exploring new ways to address workers’ growing independence.

According to an article at (the National Association of Counties) these include the idea of a “dependent contractor” - freelancers who work largely or entirely for one company, who would thus provide benefits — and “portable benefits” — benefits owned by gig workers which they could carry from one employer to another, but contributed to by the companies who use such workers, probably on a prorated basis.

Change may not be merely an option for the most progressive employers, if California’s new law is any indication. The “gig worker bill” which passed in 2019 and took effect this year potentially grants hundreds of thousands of gig workers a new employee status, including benefits and limits to how employers use them. This month, Uber Technologies announced its response with changes to its app and policies in compliance with the new law.

It’s not all peaches and cream. Uber and another tech platform company have filed a lawsuit to block the law. Uber prices in California are speculated to increase by as much as 30 percent in some cases.

We’ll see how things shake out, but wherever the chips fall, changes to the gig economy are coming.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist with the Hagadone News Network.