As parts of the economy have failed to catch up to prefinancial crisis levels, as we have seen in the Southern Tier in general, a large number of workers have been forced into the so-called “gig economy,” where they get paid based on the gigs they perform. For example, an Uber driver gets paid based on how many people they drive to their destinations. While I have not provided taxi service for Uber, I have participated in other forms of the so-called gig economy. In particular, I was a courier for a local food delivery app specifically for college students. What I found was labor even more precarious than part-time employment.
For starters, any food that I had to deliver was paid for out of my own pocket, to be reimbursed later by the company. This is problematic for drivers like myself who don’t necessarily have enough money, because it artificially limits the amount of work you can do. I doubt that the company behind the app does not have the money to cover the orders for the courier. Instead, it passes those costs — temporarily, but still significantly — onto the worker.
Secondly, though I performed labor for the company, I was technically not one of its employees. I was a so-called “independent contractor,” a classification significant because of its lack of labor protections: I was not entitled to workers’ rights that in other situations would be a given, such as a minimum wage, unemployment, workers’ compensation, reimbursement for fuel or any such benefits. Independent contract workers are also not protected by anti-discrimination laws. Additionally, I had to hope and rely upon the notion that my customers would tip me for my services. This often didn’t happen, thanks to the reality that the current economy simply does not favor college students.
Further, the app described incentivized labor that for some could prove risky, if not even dangerous. The most orders often come after dark and even after midnight. Putting aside the health effects of staying up late and driving — and the increased risk of car accidents that labor provides — it can affect academic performance as well. There is a large body of research correlating short sleep times, which workers endure after a long night on the job, and worse academic performance.
Though this is my experience with only one gig economy app, parts of it are generalizable, such as the lack of a minimum wage, reliance on tips and precarious labor. Some will say that these are just gigs, after all. That they are meant to be temporary or supplemental to gainful employment elsewhere. But this is likely not the reality for many people. In June 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on the number of people performing independent contract work: 10.6 million. It is possible, even probable, that a proportion of those nearly 11 million workers are using the gig economy as their sole line of income. Perhaps some of them are college students — even Binghamton University students. Still, their classification rewards them with pay that isn’t enough to live on (that is, about half as much as what they would have made five years ago) and few to no benefits.
These companies are fighting to keep these workers considered independent contractors and not employees, and in some cases they are winning. In September 2018, Uber won a lawsuit on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing a decision by a lower court to classify its drivers as employees and not independent contractors.
So what is to be done? As examples, if these services are to be used at all, we must make sure workers receive a better pay. That means tipping at least 20 percent where possible, regardless of the quality of service rendered. The National Labor Relations Act must be amended to extend labor protections to independent contract workers. These rights include the right to unionize, to a minimum wage and to be protected against discrimination, among others. But these are only partial solutions that don’t get to the root cause of these ills. Critically, we must aid and support efforts by these and other workers to organize, build bottom-up movements without hierarchy and perform radical labor activism. Mass protests, wildcat strikes and other such actions are necessary to finally give these workers the rights they deserve. It can be done, has been done in countries like the United Kingdom and elsewhere and should be done.
Jacob Hanna is a junior majoring in economics.