Helen hasn’t taken a day off in weeks. Since the novel coronavirus crisis began, she’s taken countless trips to the grocery store as an Instacart shopper, ferrying bags of food to people for what amounts to a little more than minimum wage. Recently, a group of Instacart shoppers staged a nationwide strike, demanding that the company provide higher wages, along with benefits like hazard pay and sick leave. Helen supports those demands but says she “literally couldn’t afford to take the day off.” (She asked not to use her last name for fear of retaliation.) It’s not just out-of-pocket payments for gas, car insurance, and all the rest. She also has to pay for her own health insurance and dip into her savings to take a sick day. “I’m just saving as much as possible during the feast, because I know it’ll be back to famine soon enough.”
The gig economy has been like this for years, with some workers scrambling to make ends meet sans traditional benefits. And it’s not just gig workers. While on-demand jobs represent a small sliver of the economy, Gallup estimates that as many as one-third of Americans rely on alternative work arrangements, piecing together a paycheck from various clients or customers.
Now, as the Covid-19 crisis worsens, Americans seem to appreciate the value of these workers more than ever—especially couriers like Helen, who have become a lifeline for people stuck at home. Delivery workers have been called “household heroes.” Cities on lockdown have classified their work as “essential.” That’s thrown into stark relief the nature of their work and their lack of protections like health care, sick leave, workers’ compensation, and stable pay. Americans are paying unprecedented attention to gig workers. If ever there was a time to secure those benefits, it’s now.
“We are absolutely at a fork in the road,” says Palak Shah, the founding director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has fought to provide comprehensive benefits to domestic workers. “The conversation is at a turning point now, where we’re shifting from talking about the ‘future of work’ to realizing it’s not about the future. It has to change right now.”
Benefits like unemployment insurance arose in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression. Employer-sponsored health insurance came later, as did federal requirements to give employees time off for family and medical leave. These systems provide a safety net to people who work, but they reflect the needs of a 20th-century workforce, when far more people worked for one employer for most of their career. Today, tens of millions of people with nontraditional work arrangements are left out.
Some parts of the workforce have gone without traditional benefits for decades, long before “the gig economy” existed: house cleaners, nannies, plumbers, electricians, tutors, and even real estate agents, many of whom are self-employed or lack a full-time employer who would administer benefits. “There’s a lot of commonality between someone who’s driving for Uber and someone who’s working as a tutor, or a subcontracted worker who’s providing cleaning services for Google,” says Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative. “Those workers have slightly different work arrangements, but their inability to access benefits is very similar.”
When the economy ground to a halt in 2008, most people without W-2 jobs didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they couldn’t claim an employer who had paid unemployment taxes. Now, legislators have temporarily changed that policy, allowing freelancers and self-employed individuals to claim unemployment benefits for the first time. Fitzpayne believes that’s at least partly owing to the recent visibility of gig workers. “It’s raised awareness that if you’re going to provide unemployment insurance benefits, and you only apply it for people who have traditional employers, you’ll leave out tens of millions of people.”
Fitzpayne thinks that visibility means the public may finally be tuned-in enough to force even broader regulatory changes. “For the first time since the gig economy has become a household term, around 2009 or so, legislators are thinking very actively that the benefits being provided are not just going to employees but also self-employed individuals and those who are part of the gig economy,” he says. “That’s an important evolution.”
There have been previous attempts at so-called portable benefits, which are tied to individuals rather than the corporations they work for. In 2018 the National Domestic Workers Alliance piloted Alia, a program that pools voluntary contributions from clients that cleaners can then redeem for disability insurance, accident insurance, life insurance, or paid time off. Clients make small, recurring payments—the recommended amount is about $5 per house cleaning—and workers can access their accrued funds in an online dashboard.
Shah says there hasn’t been much urgency around providing these benefits until very recently. Now, as more platforms for portable benefits are emerging, it will be important for them to use the momentum to catch on. “With the coronavirus crisis, I think we’re going to see public opinion change very quickly,” says Shah. “A large part of what we needed was visibility. We have that now.”
Legislation has started to emerge that would address some of those needs. Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) reintroduced a bill in February that would earmark $20 million for states and nonprofits to offer benefits like workers’ comp, disability coverage, and retirement savings to people without traditional employers. “Coronavirus is underscoring how vulnerable some American workers are without access to a safety net,” Warner tweeted. “This crisis is demonstrating why we need a portable benefits system for gig workers, independent contractors, and other contingent workers.” And in May, Philadelphia will become the first city in the country to pilot its own portable benefits program, which affords domestic workers up to 40 hours of paid time off each year.
And while companies remain unlikely to offer benefits freely, some gig workers find themselves with more leverage than ever. In March, Instacart announced that it would hire 300,000 more shoppers to meet demand. Workers were able to secure better treatment, including the promise of protective supplies like masks and hand sanitizers and a higher raised tip amount. Workers for Shipt, a Target-owned grocery delivery company, followed suit this week with a similar strike.
“It is significant that you’re seeing more of that type of activism in this moment than we’ve seen in the past,” says Fitzpayne. “Workers are feeling that they’re in a strong enough position to make those types of requests.”
Still, even if Instacart met all of the demands of its workers, it wouldn’t do much for the millions of other workers with similar types of jobs. “If you’re giving them benefits while preserving these illegal business models, then you’re allowing employers to get away with not providing protections to workers that are due,” says Larry Mishel, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. Some states are pushing for companies to reclassify their workers as employees, not contractors. California recently passed legislation that defines Uber drivers, DoorDash delivery workers, and similar roles as employees; in New York, a court recently ruled that Postmates workers cannot be classified as independent contractors. Those companies are aggressively pushing back.
The coronavirus crisis may divert attention away from those recent regulatory decisions, but Fitzpayne argues that long-term change will ultimately require legislation. “We’re seeing temporary solutions, but that invites the broader question,” says Fitzpayne. “Are we going to be able, as a country, to take some of these temporary solutions and make them more permanent?”
If that push for more durable solutions doesn’t happen now, while public sympathies for gig workers are exceedingly high, then it may never happen at all.
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