Workplace Safety and the Gig Economy: Why Work is Becoming More Dangerous in the U.S.

In 21st-century America, labor laws are often taken for granted — yet the myriad rights and protections afforded to the modern American worker only came about thanks to diligent and steadfast activists over the last century. Throughout America’s past, working conditions were poor, child labor was commonplace, and discrimination was rampant. 

Fortunately, 20th-century legislators passed a number of laws designed to advance democratic principles within the U.S. workforce. For instance, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was introduced in 1935, granting workers the right to form unions. And in 1964, workplace discrimination on the basis of race became illegal following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Title 7.

With all the advancements in the realm of worker safety and protections over the last century, one might assume that we’re in a golden age of workplace safety. Unfortunately, work is actually becoming more dangerous, and the so-called gig economy is one of the primary culprits.

In February 2019, Quartz reported that the modern gig economy is helping to undermine worker protections, rather than improve working conditions. They reached that conclusion by looking at recent studies of gig workers, often called “independent contractors” at the company level. Gig workers often barely make minimum wage, and are grossly unprotected. The Quartz report notes that independent contractors typically aren’t afforded “health insurance, workers’ compensation protections…discrimination protections, or unemployment insurance benefits.”

Thus, as worker protections are virtually nonexistent in the gig economy, independent contractors often face severe consequences when injured on the job. And physical injuries are just the beginning: A workplace accident can result in major property damage, loss of wages, and pronounced medical debt. So is there anything contract workers can do to ensure better workplace protection? 

The Rise of the Gig Economy

On-demand work is enticing for a number of reasons: Contract workers can set their own hours and work schedules, and can even earn income from multiple sources. Non-traditional employees may also be able to avoid various forms of workplace discrimination or unscrupulous hiring practices, whether based on gender, race, or religious beliefs. 

Of course, workplace discrimination is technically illegal, but it’s more common than one might think, especially in our current political climate. In fact, the Trump administration is aggressively fighting to allow for workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, arguing that it isn’t listed under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act. In addition, the Supreme Court heard arguments in October in a set of cases involving alleged sexual orientation-based workplace discrimination. The Court’s decision on the matter is expected sometime around June 2020. 

Until then, the best way for an LGBTQ worker to completely avoid discriminatory hiring practices is to become a gig worker. All in all, the U.S. mobile and freelance workforce encompasses more than 57 million adults of all backgrounds. That number equals about 36% of the national workforce, reports Business News Daily. No matter how you view the overall gig economy, that’s a significant amount of Americans without on-the-job protections and rights. 

Balancing Job Flexibility with Workplace Safety

Our working class ancestors could never have envisioned that workplace dangers would still be prevalent in the 21st century. 

Spanning from approximately 1760 to the 1830s, the Industrial Revolution effectively changed the world into one that was more efficient, more connected, and more technologically advanced. It was also during this period when the importance of worker protection began to receive widespread public attention. Production methods of the era were notoriously dangerous, and some of the most hazardous occupations included mining and railroad transportation.

Like traditional employees today, American workers injured on the job in the early 1900s had the opportunity to seek legal recourse against their employer. Yet gig workers are not afforded the same luxury and aren’t entitled to workers’ compensation insurance benefits, even if they’re injured while performing job-related duties. Such is the nature of the independent contractor’s relationship with his or her employer; in the gig economy, companies no longer have to worry about workers compensation claims or potential lawsuits in the event of a workplace accident. 

Dangers of Working as a Contractor Behind the Wheel 

Arguably the most glaring oversight when it comes to the gig economy is the lack of worker protection in the event of an accident. This is especially true for the estimated 1 million rideshare drivers who take to America’s roads on a regular basis, as driving is one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. 

According to the National Employment Law Project, ”taxi drivers and chauffeurs are killed on the job at a rate five times higher than the average for all other workers.” Further, taxi drivers are also extremely vulnerable to both homicide and common types of car accident injuries, such as broken bones, concussions, lacerations, and internal bleeding.

Therefore, drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare platforms put their lives at risk every time they get behind the wheel. Shouldn’t they be afforded the same protections afforded to chauffeurs and professional taxi drivers? 

To bridge the gap between being ineligible for employer-covered healthcare and the inherent risks of driving for a living, gig workers have several options. Most, such as purchasing private insurance coverage, come with out of pocket costs and may not be possible for workers struggling to make ends meet. But for many independent contractors, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) offers a viable opportunity for low-cost health coverage. 

The ACA, still in place in 2019 despite harsh criticism from the Trump administration, has helped dramatically reduce the number of uninsured Americans. In fact, nearly 16% of Americans were uninsured prior to the ACA’s implementation in 2010, according to Bradley University. Under the ACA, that percentage fell to just 9.2%. Political controversy notwithstanding, it can hardly be denied that the ACA has effectively improved quality of life for millions by providing a low-cost health coverage option to working-class Americans. And many of those hard-working citizens make a living in the gig economy. 

Final Thoughts

When it comes down to it, the societal cost of the gig economy is substantial, as it emphasizes profits above worker safety and respect. So, here in the trenches of the gig economy, how can we improve workers’ rights and keep them protected? Unfortunately, change is only likely to come via legislative policy changes and a re-imagining of worker protection laws to account for technological advancements in the workplace. 

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