Many labor advocates and policymakers argue that gig companies such as Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Instacart and DoorDash misclassify their workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees. This allows gig companies to deny their workers important labor protections in order to reduce costs. Surprisingly, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently agreed with his critics that gig workers deserve better than how he treats them. Yet Khosrowshahi refuses to hold Uber to his own higher standard, instead scapegoating the lack of legal mandates on the industry.
Gig companies have many incentives to misclassify their workers as independent contractors. One popular straw man argument Uber makes is that drivers do not want to be employees because they value flexibility. But many of Uber’s drivers cannot afford to take advantage of the supposed flexibility of gig work.
However, research on gig workers finds that almost a third of them work full time; 27% work 40 hours or more per week on average, and 11% work 50 hours or more per week. Some even work as much as 80 hours per week. This is not surprising since many gig companies like Uber often encourage their workers to keep working.
Among full-time gig workers, 42% say that they would prefer a 9-to-5 schedule, and 60% say their schedule does not vary from week to week. These numbers show that many gig workers actually value working traditionally predictable hours. However, algorithmic pricing strategies push gig workers to work when and where gig companies want them to.
Rather than classifying and treating almost one-third of gig workers like the full-time gig workers, Khosrowshahi says that Uber would willingly contribute to a portable benefits fund if and when gig companies were required to do so by law. What does this mean for gig workers who work already full time? It means they are not getting their due anytime soon.
Even if benefit funds were established, there would still be large gaps in gig worker labor protections. For example, Uber estimates that a driver averaging over 35 hours per week would accrue $1,350 in benefit funds in 2019 and suggests that that’s enough to cover two weeks of paid time off, or the median annual premium for subsidized health insurance. But gig workers working full time should not have to choose between paid time off and health insurance.
And though Uber argues that “most drivers already have some form of health insurance,” my research finds that about 40% of full-time gig workers do not have health insurance.
Furthermore, Uber’s benefits fund proposal is a distraction from critical policy debates on whether Uber actually pays its workers a minimum wage. Research finds that gig workers earn $14 per hour including tips before expenses and is in line with other research that finds that many gig workers effectively earn less than local minimum wage mandates.
Uber’s proposals also detract from the fact that as contractors, gig workers do not get access to workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination protections or employer contributions to Social Security.
Uber may be ready right now to pay more to give drivers new benefits and protections, but it does not plan to do anything until a law requires it. In fact, it has done the exact opposite. Rather than complying with a judge’s order to reclassify its workforce in accordance with existing California law, Uber and Lyft have threatened to shut down and leave many workers unemployed during a time when thousands of Americans are unable to find other jobs.
Almost a third of gig workers already work full time. These workers clearly deserve benefits now. Gig companies should not neglect full-time gig workers just because other gig workers work part time. It’s benevolent to recognize that gig workers deserve better. It’s disingenuous to deny them better even after companies are forced to. These workers deserve protections now.
Katherine Hill is a doctoral candidate in sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Abilene Reporter News.