Labor

We are America’s independent contractors, and we are terrified

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After two years of fighting for our right to remain our own bosses, we have come to a disturbing conclusion: A shocking number of lawmakers are actively trying to destroy our livelihoods.

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee made that much clear with its 11-10 vote on Jan. 13 to advance the nomination of David Weil as administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor. Weil, the author of “The Fissured Workplace,” believes that the decline in unionized employees, coupled with the rise of independent contractors like us—who, at 59 million strong, comprise a third of the U.S. workforce—has created a great fissuring, or breaking, of our workforce that requires correction. 

His advancement is just the latest battle in the war we’re being forced to fight to keep our chosen careers. The first-wave attack came in 2019 with California’s Assembly Bill 5, which severely restricted the legality of independent contractor work. Proponents said AB5 would punish companies that intentionally misclassified employees as independent contractors, and would make those folks legally eligible to form unions (which independent contractors, as small-business owners, cannot do). 

Leading Democrats from Joe Biden to Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren cheered the passage of AB5. Weil told The New York Times it would “have major reverberations around the country.”

It sure did. Horrible ones.

AB5 created zero new unions and precious few traditional jobs. Instead, most companies cut ties with California’s independent contractors, damaging so many livelihoods that the state passed an emergency measure exempting more than 100 professions. The reverberations were indeed felt across the country in our home state of New Jersey, where a copycat bill died amid vocal outrage from independent contractors unwilling to endure the same fate. 

Unbelievably, the Biden administration has since doubled down on the president’s promise to make AB5’s anti-independent contractor language the basis of all labor, employment and tax law. The first federal attempt was with the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed the U.S. House but stalled in the Senate, where two of the Democratic holdouts, Mark Warner and Mark Kelly, said independent contractors need protection.

So, the Biden administration is implementing Plan B at the White House. In late December, the National Labor Relations Board, newly stacked with Biden appointees, announced its intent to revisit the standard it uses to distinguish employees from independent contractors. Less than a month later, the Senate HELP Committee advanced Weil, who would spearhead the anti-independent contractor strategy via the Department of Labor.

This entire push is terrifyingly detached from reality. Study after study shows 70 percent to 85 percent of independent contractors are just plain happier this way. Some 60 percent said in the thick of 2020s pandemic problems that no amount of money would get them to take a traditional job. Even at companies like Uber and Lyft, which are often cast as villains in news stories about independent contractors, the majority of app-based workers want to remain independent, too.

What’s more, women—who tend to lean Democrat, and who believe that freedom of choice also includes how we earn a living—have been a key driver of the trend toward independent contracting since at least 2004. Last year, more than half of new independent contractors were female. Millions of women have abandoned traditional jobs in the Great Resignation, and many have joined those of us who enjoy a better work-life balance, have less stress, and earn just as much as our own bosses.

So, let us say it yet again: We do not need lawmakers to fix something that, for the vast majority of us, isn’t broken. 

Where people like Weil see our working style as “fissured,” we see it as “fail-safe.” Even amid the continuing pandemic, two out of three of us working full-time as independent contractors feel more secure than traditional workers do, thanks to the safety net of multiple clients and streams of income, full control over our schedules, and total flexibility to work wherever and however we please. 

Anyone who still believes in the idea of a “fissured workplace” needs to rethink the need to protect self-employment. The full Senate should reject Weil’s nomination, and stand with all of us independent contractors working toward a fail-safe future.

Kim Kavin (@thekimkavin) and Jen Singer (@JenSinger) are full-time freelance writers and editors and co-founders of the nonpartisan, self-funded, ad hoc coalition Fight For Freelancers.

Tags Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Kamala Harris Mark Kelly Mark Warner

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