How Can We Improve Workers’ Rights in the Gig Economy?

If you’ve ever needed to get a short distance from public transit, or had to catch an early flight and didn’t want to bother your family, then you’ve most likely called on a gig worker to help you out. Drivers for share economy services like Lyft and Uber are a part of the new and burgeoning “gig economy.” Employees of these companies join a growing field of people who do part-time work to supplement their full-time or other part-time employment.

Like with any economic field in the United States, having policies in place to protect workers and limit corporations is important for health and growth of the sector. However, these policies frequently shift, changing based on the policies of political leaders. While not always drastic changes, whoever holds control in the United States often has sway over the economy as well. By influencing policymakers, those working in the gig economy can work towards securing the rights needed for fair employment.

As the gig economy grows and changes, more and more gig workers will look for better protections for their time and labor. We can start to see policies begin to follow those requests — which are sometimes made forcefully through lawsuits. Regardless of the means, policies will begin to take shape to better regulate the gig economy.

The Gig Economy Is Very New

The gig economy as we currently know it began to take shape in the mid-2000s, with the success of apps like Uber. During those years, drivers applied to work flexible and self-determined hours with the transportation company, making decent money for just a few hours of work. The success of this style of labor, paired with the rising popularity of fellow share-economy company AirBnB, led to an increase in the types of companies that tapped into the part-time workforce.

In just a decade, gig workers have grown to number in the millions. It’s no longer an uncommon thing to say, “Oh yeah, I used to drive for that service,” or, “I used to host for that company.” It seems that the more gig workers the economy gained, the more people were excited about the opportunity to make extra income on their own terms. Now, doing gig work can include driving passengers around the city, renting out your spare room, or even showing up after someone’s family dinner and doing their dishes.

However, market saturation meant profits per job aren’t what they were at the beginning. Unfortunately, the more that the share economy grows, the more potential problems develop. There are very few protections in place for these workers.

There Aren’t Always Policies to Protect Gig Workers

The biggest issues that have risen in the share economy stem from the fact that gig workers don’t technically work for the company that’s paying them. This means that if a worker runs into an issue or has an accident during their shift, they can be left entirely on their own. There is little to no protection from the parent company.

Additionally, minimum wage laws on the state and federal level don’t apply to share economy jobs. This means that people driving for rideshare companies may only make a few dollars an hour, much less than what they would have earned just a few years ago — and far below the national average wage. There simply aren’t any protections in place regarding the amount of money a gig worker can make, meaning they’ll have to work longer and harder to make the same amount of money as their protected counterparts.

To put this in perspective, think about a job you’ve had that involved working either with a customer or a client. If you had a conflict, there was usually a manager or representative above you that would step in and defend you or resolve the issue as needed. In the gig economy, there is no manager or representative to help you.

Court Cases Are the First Step in Better Protections

Lawsuits can jumpstart policymaking and influence decision-makers. Now, this doesn’t mean everyone working in the gig economy should rush out and start suing every employer. However, we’ve seen how landmark cases, when elevated to certain courts, can become an impetus for policy change.

For example, in 2013, Uber was sued by drivers in several states for get better protections and reimbursements for their expenses. While this didn’t elevate gig worker rights on a systemic level, it did force the rideshare giant to pay out reimbursement for miles driven. This lawsuit could become a stepping stone in prompting rideshare companies to pay their drivers higher wages or provide better benefits.

It’s crucial that policymakers at every level are aware of how the gig economy is taking shape so they can help to best regulate it. Gig workers are like any other worker in the United States, and they should be able to work safely and fairly. As the economy continues to develop, policymakers will need to acknowledge the constituents they represent in the gig economy for a brighter future.

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