Should gig workers be considered employees?

There’s been a lot of news here in California
about the “gig economy” and whether or not the people who work for companies
like Uber and Lyft should be independent contractors or actual employees.

The difference is huge, to the bottom lines of
the companies involved. If the workers are “just” independent contractors, they
make only as much money as they earn when they work, and they get no benefits:
healthcare, vacation or sick time, or contributions to retirement funds. If the
workers are deemed to be actual employees, the companies are going to have to
cover those costs.

Obviously, there are billions of dollars at
stake, which is why the gig companies are trying to kill pending bills, and get
initiatives passed, that limit their financial exposure by ensuring that their
workers remain “contractors.” Opposed to them are labor unions, who believe
that if you’re working for a gig company, you deserve the same benefits as if
you’re working for a “traditional” company, like (say) Apple, Chevron or the
local school district.

As a former, longtime independent contractor,
I’d like to offer my views.

I worked for wine magazines for decades: Wine
Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I was a gig employee before the term was
invented. I never had any benefits. This became more of an issue when I worked
for Wine Enthusiast because my public visibility increased and so did my work
load and importance to my employer. I never made a big deal about it to my
boss, but on those occasions when talk of benefits did arise, he would claim
that I didn’t really need benefits because I had so many perks as a wine critic.

He had a point: the restaurants, hotels,
wine…it was enjoyable. I enjoyed my status as an independent contractor. I got
to choose my own hours of work. I could take days off without permission. As
long as I turned in my work assignments with professionalism—and I did–I was
golden.

Of course, I would have loved to have health
insurance, a 401K retirement contribution from my employer, and the rest of the
benefits that “real” employees enjoy. But it was not in my nature to make such demands,
which my boss would have denied anyway, with the threat that there were plenty
of people ready to take my place if I was unhappy. I understood that, from the
point of view of my employer, I was a good deal: he was getting the milk, but
he didn’t have to buy the cow.

So I understand the argument on the part of the
gig employers that they’re trying to protect their workers’ flexibility. On the
other hand I also see the flaws in this argument. I did indeed have lots of
benefits in my job. But if you’re an Uber or Lyft driver, you get no such
benefits. I suppose there are plenty of gig company workers who prefer
independence to benefits. There are probably an equal number who would like to
have the benefits; indeed, I’ve seen news reports of both groups expressing
their preference.

What should the law mandate under such
circumstances?

This is not an easy decision. One the one hand,
lawmakers don’t want to stifle entrepreneurialism by being overly-restrictive
on companies. On the other, they need to protect the rights of workers against
being exploited. America has a long history of rich employers sucking the
lifeblood out of workers, from the forced child labor of yesteryear to the coal
mines of today that expose workers to black lung disease to the gig companies themselves.
But where is the line between excessive mommy-state intrusion, and mandating a
more equal sharing of wealth?

As a moderate Democrat, I wrestle with this
question. As usual, I try to find the middle ground. Is there a way to protect
Uber’s and Lyft’s interests so they remain viable employers for the many people
who obviously want to work for them? At the same time, is there a way to offer
their workers the benefits which a majority of Americans have come to expect?
And is there a way to protect drivers…


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