Candidates: How will you turn ‘gig’ jobs into good jobs?

The low pay and troubling work conditions associated with “on demand” apps like Uber have caught the attention of the media, the courts, and Capitol Hill. But on the campaign trail, there’s near radio silence on the issue.

Sure, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRepublicans to release Benghazi report Tuesday Sanders's Nevada director floated two-sided coins for tiebreaks: report Benghazi Blues MORE has expressed some concern about on-demand workers and job quality, and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) has repeatedly called for the “Uberization” of the government, but we haven’t heard much about the “Uberization” of work—and the consequences for the workers.

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Candidates and the public are being fed tropes about how requiring on-demand companies to comply with baseline worker protections would kill jobs and innovation. But “gig” workers—and many other workers—are being deprived of basic employment rights and benefits on a daily basis. Here are some realities that both policymakers and candidates should be talking about.

First, there’s far less “new” in the so-called “new economy” than we’re being led to believe. Far from a new phenomenon, on-demand jobs are the logical extension of decades of outsourcing, subcontracting, franchising, and illegally misclassifying employees as “independent contractors.” 

Changes in business structures have degraded working conditions for millions of workers, not just the 600,000 or so in the on-demand economy. Although gig workers are dispatched via app or online, they are generally still performing labor at the behest of an employer, in a manner dictated and overseen by their employer, and at rates of pay set by their employer. As the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck, and that duck is employment.

Second, workers aren’t by and large turning to the on-demand economy because they love the flexibility. They’re doing so out of necessity—the need to earn more money because their day jobs don’t pay the rent, as a February 2016 report from the J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Institute demonstrates.

Third, the choice between business innovation and corporate accountability is a false one. Innovative on-demand companies, such as the transit service Bridj, the cleaning company Managed by Q, and the laundry and cleaning company Alfred, have always treated their workers as employees. More, including the package delivery startup Shyp and the home care company Honor, are joining their ranks. These companies and their practices demonstrate that treating workers as employees adds to a company’s success, rather than detracting from it. 

The “Uberization” of work is not inevitable. We need to enforce existing labor standards to ensure that work delivers the benefits workers are entitled to. We need to ensure that existing portable benefits like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation apply to all who work for a living. We need paid sick leave, paid leave, and reliable schedules to be there for everyone—part-timers, multiple job-holders, those who change jobs frequently. Good jobs with decent wages and benefits are what we need to rebuild our middle class and lift families from poverty. It’s time to commit to a real 21st century safety net—one that recognizes the needs of workers and the realities of work.

On-demand platforms have tremendous potential to improve job quality and wages for workers. That is the discussion we need to have. All the candidates, starting with those competing for the top job, need to explain to the American public what they will do to make sure that gig-economy jobs and other jobs in the subcontracted economy are good ones.  

What will you do to ensure that employee status is honored where it exists, no matter what label a business places on its workers? How will you ensure that the powerful controlling interests at the top of a chain of subcontractors take responsibility for the workers at the bottom? How will you strengthen, expand and update programs like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation to make them sustainable, sustaining, and truly universal? How will you ensure that the on-demand economy doesn’t become an economic free-for-all in which workers have no benefits, no protections, and no future?

We have a choice to make, and it’s an important one. Will the new jobs in our economy lift workers and their families into the middle class? Will we harness technology to improve working conditions for the many, or to enrich the few? These are crucial issues facing our labor force, and we need and deserve to know what our candidates will do about them. If we get it right for Uber drivers, Postmates, and other gig workers, we can get it right for all of us. If we fail, we invite even further degradation of work and of workers across America.

Smith is deputy director and Conti is federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.

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