Lets face it. The gig economy is here to stay. If it was not a good idea, then the entire market of new companies that have been created would not be flourishing…and they are not all flourishing because they are taking advantage of loopholes in the law. When something does not go the way they expect it, the layperson calls it a “loophole in the law”. When someone or some company escapes legal liability on a “technicality” the public calls it unfair. It is almost always an afterthought reaction when a group of persons file a class action lawsuit against a company alleging that the company misclassified them as independent contractors. Of course, they don’t seek “justice” by making the market reform to the existing laws and they don’t petition their elected leaders to change the law, but they seek the usual object of a lawsuit….MONEY (compensation for missed lunch breaks, minimum wage compensation, reimbursement for business expenses, and overtime, in addition to other penalties). While a lawsuit and the payment of money may have the unintended result of making a company reform its business practices, the current wave of class action lawsuits will not change an entire industry that has been created in the past 5-6 years.
Lawsuits against companies utilizing the “gig economy” are like a threatening cloud in a brewing storm. People who provide services surely deserve respect, fair treatment, and open communication, but that does not mean that all persons who provide services are employees, as opposed to independent contractors. Yes, there surely are many companies that misclassify their workers as independent contractors as opposed to employees in order to avoid the legal and financial liabilities associated with hiring an employee. But there are also many who follow the law and do utilize independent contractors, but still have to navigate the legal maze of bottom feeding lawyers that seek out these class action lawsuits, not to reform an industry or a market, but to get money.
This rising legal retribution is a huge threat to the gig economy. Not being responsible for employees’ taxes and benefits allows companies to operate with 20% to 30% less in labor costs than the incumbent competition. If they lose this workforce structure either via class-action lawsuits or intervention by regulators, or through the collective action of disgruntled workers, and you will surely lose the gig economy.
The lawmakers may need to alter the very definition of “employee” in order to meet the demands of the in a tech-enabled, service-driven economy in the 21st century American Gig economy. Many companies do not own cars, hotels, or even their workers’ cleaning supplies. What they own is a marketplace with two sides. On one side are people who need a job done–a ride to the airport, a clean house, a lunchtime delivery. On the other are people who are willing to do that job. In the middle is a broker. This is the one that puts the two parties together and takes a “piece of the action”. Little or no direction and control over the means by which a person provides their service is the legal equivalent of an independent contractor. If you don’t like being an independent contractor, then go out and get a job as an employee, which involves more supervision, more direction and less autonomy. There is nothing wrong with that, but just don’t complain later on that you were cheated after you speak to a scum sucking ambulance chaser.
Some say a new deal has to be worked out and one that squares the legal rules governing work with new products and new services. Some believe the gig economy created a marketplace where people who provide services do not fit neatly into the traditional definition of employee or independent contractor. Right now, one who provides services is not sure what benefits to expect from a quasi-employer. For those who want to know, all you have to do is ask. If you don’t like the answer, then don’t accept the job or don’t provide the service. I believe one can be both independent and tethered to an app-based company. The social contract between gig economy workers and employers may be outdated, but it is far from broken. Who will fix it, and how, will determine the fate of many thousands of workers and billions of dollars.
Thanks to these new on-demand startups, though, whether you’re a stay-at-home mom with a few odd hours to spare or a recently unemployed fast-food worker who needs to make ends meet while looking for a job, you can work whenever you want, doing whatever you want. Many like the flexibility and feel like it gives them a better work and life balance. In the gig economy, you’re better than an employee; you’re a little business. We now live in a world where people can be entrepreneurs or micro-entrepreneurs, Just like the government didn’t begin to regulate the Internet before it became a behemoth, regulating this new economy before it’s fully created could halt innovation. Perhaps I just don’t have much faith in regulators whose job is not to ensure a properly working system, but to regulate for the sake of regulation by implementing more and more rules of operation to the point of choking a business to death. Just like the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission did to the for-hire vehicle industry in New York City.
I believe the gig economy has been improperly interpreted as a loophole for avoiding labor laws. There is little economic security or predictability in being an independent contractor, but then again, there is the promise of starting off with your own small entity and creating something new and ever bigger and better than before. If you want security and predictability, then go get a job teaching 4th grade in an elementary school. If you want to take a risk and be your own boss and possibly fulfill your dreams, then start your own business and make it rain…and don’t come complaining later when your own ideas and inventions don’t work out because it is not the fault anyone other than you and your own choices. Some don’t like the gig economy because there is no power among workers to get a fair share of the profits. For those who believe this, take a step back and realize that you don’t get the profits of a private company by being an employee or a person that provides services. Many people try and fail to make money with gig economy jobs, and then complain that their legal rights were violated. Why did they not think of this when they signed on to be an independent contractor in the first place
It’s safe to say that there are advantages to being an employee (security, safety laws, minimum wage, benefits) and that there are also advantages to being an independent contractor (freedom, independence, opportunity for more profit). Similarly, there are advantages to hiring employees (quality control, dependable workers) and hiring contract workers (cheaper, don’t need to guarantee work). Where platforms and new markets get into legally dubious territory is when they try to claim the advantages of both systems at the same time. But just remember that simply because you utilize the platform of another company does not mean that you don’t have control over the work you did. If the company that provided the platform or means to access the marketplace, then you would not have the option to be an independent contractor.
The laws that determine independent contractor and employee status vary from state to state and from situation to situation, but many of them focus on the question of how much control workers have over their work. If their employer is mainly focused on the outcome of that work, there’s a very good chance they’re fairly being classified as an independent contractor. When their employer begins to control not only what work they do, but how they do it, that classification gets murky. Giving persons suggestions for how to do their work should not made the company more vulnerable to a lawsuit. Similarly, though traditional taxi drivers are often independent workers rather than employees, a platform like Uber takes a certain amount of control when it fires them for low ratings or changes their fare prices. Some don’t like the idea of going into work one day and your “boss” telling you that you’re going to have to do the exact same job you did last week but make less money”. But ”firing” someone for low ratings does not necessarily make them an employee, it may just means that the company no longer desires to utilize their services.
Right now, our legal system only has two buckets for workers who aren’t volunteers or interns. You are an employee. Or you are an independent contractor. The risk of being sued has led many in the gig economy to place workers into the employee bucket. This also drives costs to the consumer up because the cost structure for these companies increases by about 30% by paying for taxes and benefits that they may not have to, but they just want to be cautious. Other companies in the gig economy place workers into the independent contractor bucket, which entails the risk of worker misclassification claims for disgruntled persons who formerly provided services and/or tax hungry governmental entities that have every intention of finding an employer-employee relationship so they can increase revenue for the city, state and/or federal government. The legal risk, the risk of being asked to pay back-taxes by the IRS or Department of Labor is a battle that everyone knows is coming and each entity that utilizes independent contractors should make budgetary preparations, emotional preparations and legal preparations to fight and defend.
The pressure in the marketplace right now is to push workers into one bucket or another (employees or independent contractors). This creates an inherent fear of the governmental fines if you are wrong and the fear of the cost of defending a class-action lawsuit where a group of former disgruntled persons allege that a company misclassified its workers. But on the other hand, classifying a person as an employee will raise the cost to consumers in many situations when the worker is not an employee and thus, the increased cost to the consumer for no good reason.
But some wonder if there is some room for compromise in this system. The question is whether there is some sort of a new middle ground that works for everybody. Forcing all companies to use these old constructs (employees or independent contractors) may not quite be the right thing for the worker and for the growth of the economy. After all, the answer to decreasing employment is not to get more people deemed as misclassified.
One answer, of course, is that the gig economy should be destroyed if it can’t follow existing labor laws. These legal protections have been put in place for the protection of workers and have evolved over a century and surely were not accidental. Others call for change where parts of the sharing economy could self-regulate, with oversight from the government. Others have supported creating a third category of worker that falls between an independent contractor and employee, which would allow companies to give their independent workers some benefits without fear of being sued for treating them as employees.
Lawsuits are a big, visible threat to the gig economy, but even if none are successful, there’s another, slower-burning problem that will corrode the gig economy if left unresolved. It’s a problem that gets worse every time a worker completes hundreds of jobs via a platform with nearly unanimous perfect reviews of his work, is let go and then the person becomes disgruntled and there is nothing that the company could ever do to win him back as a dedicated service provider.
In my humble opinion, the most important thing a corporation can do is to have an experienced lawyer perform a full exam of your corporation to see if it is properly classifying its workers/service providers. Do not wait until you are sued or the government performs an audit. By that time, it is too late to do anything other than damage control. The most important thing a person can do before they take a job, is to determine whether they will be classified as an employee or an independent contractor. Go into the job with your eyes wide open, knowing what your benefits and rights are based upon who you are being classified. Speak up and ask questions and make a fully informed decision before taking the job. Don’t cry the blues later on because you were fired and failed to do your homework before taking the job. Finally, the most important thing is what the government can and should do. This means to stop the audits and put aside the money grab for the moment. Take the time to involve leaders and stakeholders in each major industry that straddles the line between hiring employees and utilizing independent contractors. Figure out a way to make the line clearer for businesses and help them understand their potential legal liabilities all while another last option is pursued. That option is to bring the same leaders and stakeholders in each major industry together with the government regulators to figure out a way to find a middle ground that works for everybody. Utilizing old constructs of what it means to be an employee or an independent contractor will not work when analyzing the new gig economy. We have to come up with new constructs and figure out a way for the companies of the nation to know its legal rights and responsibilities all while giving the independent contractor some benefits that they ordinarily would not be entitled to under the current system.
There is middle ground and finding that middle ground will be a better solution for the worker, the business and the economy in general. To do otherwise is to be trapped by dogma, which is living life with the results of other people’s thinking.
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