Protecting Workers in the On-Demand Economy

Protecting Workers in the On-Demand Economy

As part of its “Cities Rising” series, The Nation magazine featured four essays from members of Local Progress, our national network of progressive local elected officials (“How to Build the Movement for Progressive Power, the Urban Way”). The collection includes this piece on city-based efforts to can protect and support workers in the on-demand economy. If you’re interested, there’s a bit more detail about these ideas in this Local Progress policy brief.

By Brad Lander

Rides from Uber. Home cleaning from Handy. Meals from Seamless. Web design from Upwork. Even doctors from Medicast.

There’s no doubt the on-demand economy is convenient. Consumers can arrange for services at the tap of a touchscreen. Workers can choose their hours and earn a little extra cash.

But there’s a very dark side to the “sharing” economy: the benefits aren’t usually shared with the workers.

Working “by-the-gig” rarely provides job security, health insurance, paid sick days or family leave, on-the-job training, or retirement contributions. Workers lack the right to organize a union. And eight in ten freelance workers report having been cheated out of wages they were owed.

President Obama and Democratic presidential candidates are finally talking about the issue. But the Republican Congress will likely block any progress. Marco Rubio recently called for even further deregulation, leaving workers at the mercy of multi-billion dollar corporations.

So cities are taking the lead in writing new rules, working with Local Progress, the National Employment Law Project, forward-thinking unions, and worker organizations to level the on-demand playing field.

In Seattle, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien is fighting for a bill that would allow drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other “ridesharing” companies to organize and bargain collectively so that workers have some voice in the terms and conditions of their work.

In New York City, we are working with the Freelancers Union to combat wage theft and late payment. When conventional employees are cheated out of wages, the state labor department can enforce and win double damages. The #FreelanceIsntFree campaign (which recently brought its message to the White House) would provide freelancers with similar protection.

Council Member Corey Johnson and I are working with the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance to mandate a “driver benefits fund” (funded by a small fare surcharge) to provide for-hire drivers with health care benefits — a first step toward the “Shared Security Account” that Nick Hanauer and David Rolf called for in a Democracy Journal article this summer. And we’re amending New York City’s human rights laws to make clear they apply to independent workers. There is no reason that Uber should be able to discriminate against drivers based on race or religion.

Meanwhile, from San Francisco to Burlington, cities are building “Offices of Labor Standards” and adopting other innovative approaches (like partnering with community-based organizations) to enforce the laws that protect workers. One task: making sure conventional employees aren’t illegally misclassified as independent workers by employers trying to cheat them out of benefits and protections (a big problem for day-laborers and domestic workers). These offices can also make sure that companies who need licenses from the city only get and keep them if they respect local, state, and federal laws.

Ultimately, we’ll need national regulation to match the growing on-demand economy. But for now, progressive cities are bringing worker protections into the 21st century — and some real sharing into the sharing economy.

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