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Independence and benefits for app workers? We just did it in Washington state

In recent years, we have seen a monumental shift in the way people approach work. Work has fundamentally changed in terms of where and how people find it and where and when they do it.

But federal labor laws largely haven’t been updated since the 1930s. As a consequence, the current legal structure allows only two paths for American workers. The first is traditional employment, which comes with important benefits but also explicit and implicit employer control over shifts and schedules. The other is independent contracting, which provides workers with the flexibility to seek out earning opportunities across multiple firms or industries and to set their own schedules, but without some of the social safety-net benefits and protections that come with employment. 

With record-low unemployment and ample availability of traditional W-2 jobs, it’s extremely clear that app-based work is something that more and more people are choosing. It’s fueled by those who not only crave but also depend upon independence and flexibility. Parents, caregivers, small business owners, students, freelancers, and those simply looking for extra income are among the estimated 25 million Americans seeking work outside of typical nine-to-five jobs. 

At Lyft, where I serve as chief policy officer, 90 percent of our drivers also work other jobs or are students. Ninety-four percent of them drive fewer than 20 hours per week.

We’ve spent years listening to drivers across the country. Over and over again the majority have declared that they want to maintain the flexibility and independence this work provides, while also accessing some benefits and protections they would get from a traditional 9-to-5 job.

Out of this discovery, the idea of independence plus benefits was born, pioneering accessible portable benefits. This introduces a completely different way of thinking about contracting, designed in a way that makes sense for the unique flexibility that app platforms provide workers.

It has been one year since the passage of HB 2076 — historic, first-in-the-nation legislation in Washington state, which is forging a new model for the future of app-based work. Legislators, app-based companies and labor organizations worked together on this to provide drivers across the state with a minimum earnings guarantee, insurance for on-the-job injuries, paid sick leave, a driver resource center, and more. As a bookend to this process, the state legislature has also passed bipartisan legislation that incorporates rideshare drivers into the state’s Unemployment Insurance and Paid Family Medical Leave systems, in a manner that makes sense in the context of rideshare. The bill was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee (D) on May 15.

Today, in Washington state, people have access to flexible work with benefits because policymakers, labor organizations and companies stopped living in the past and drafted policies to match the innovations of today and the future.

The independence plus benefits model is still a new concept, and there currently remains no national legislative solution for this new style of work. Still, the legislative success in Washington state, combined with the 2020 ballot measure that made a similar accommodation in California, prove that it has a promising future beyond just a handful of states. Lyft’s research has revealed overwhelming support beyond Washington and California, in such states as Arizona, Colorado, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.  

Flexibility and independence are here. And as we seek to cultivate and inspire the next generation of innovators, there should be no turning back. Rigid opposition to flexible contract work arrangements that also offer benefits only stymies economic progress. 

Our shared future of work is flexible — and comes with a suite of benefits. It’s time to listen to what app-based workers actually want, and for our laws and our leaders to catch up.  

Jeremy Bird is chief policy officer for Lyft.

Tags gig economy Jay Inslee Lyft Uber Washington state

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