Sep 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden allies demand help for gig workers

Illustration of an app shaped like a briefcase with a dollar sign on it waiting to download

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Activists are urging Joe Biden to turn his focus to a recovery plan for the gig economy, saying there's a moral and political imperative to help Americans who rely on short-term, on-demand contract jobs for their livelihoods.

Why it matters: "You're missing voters that would be aligned with Biden," said María Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, who's engaged the Biden campaign on this. "It’s not just young voters — it’s millions of African American and Latino voters that if you mention they’re part of this economy, it’d go a long way."

  • A poll from UnidosUS found 41% of Latinos participate in the gig economy.

The big picture: The coronavirus has exacerbated the already tenuous nature of gig-economy jobs, laying bare a fragile situation for millions. Today's gig workers often lack constants including guaranteed wages, health care, vacation time, child care, family leave, financial assistance or mental health services.

  • "Many of those who do gig work are also financially vulnerable,” said UnidosUS's Eric Rodriguez. “There’s something wrong with the picture when large numbers of people are having to work numerous gig jobs per month and still struggle to get by.”
  • AirBnB, the home-renting platform, has suffered billions of dollars in cancellations as travelers are staying home.
  • In May, Uber reported its biggest quarterly loss in three quarters, a whopping $2.9 billion as folks decided they weren't comfortable riding in someone else's car during this time.
  • If ride-share use declines because restaurants and bars are closed, or people aren't commuting to the office, drivers simply earn less and have to scramble to find other work.

Between the lines: The work-from-home experimentation forced by the pandemic also could spur a larger-scale challenge for the next administration.

  • A recent article in the Harvard Business Review says the gig economy's growth until now was largely due to the addition of unskilled delivery, driving and errand jobs. Organizational barriers prevented gig jobs from taking off in "knowledge-based" fields like engineering, consulting and management.
  • The coronavirus forced tests of off-site connectivity, productivity and quality control, though, and now "many firms will be attracted by the prospects of the direct and indirect cost savings that the gig economy model seems to offer."
  • While Biden has rolled out a broader "Build Back Better" economy recovery agenda, he hasn't yet dedicated speeches or policy rollouts specifically to the gig economy.

Senior Biden policy adviser Stef Feldman told Axios that the campaign views their economic agenda “as a unified effort to help working Americans.”

  • "Gig workers are an important part of that," she said. "Non-gig workers are as well."

Biden has advocated to extend the right to organize and bargain collectively to independent contractors, ensure they have a safe place to work with fair pay, and make health care accessible to them, whether through their employer or the Affordable Care Act.

  • Biden and running mate Kamala Harris have proposed establishing a federal standard modeled on the ABC test, which employers must pass to classify a worker as an independent contractor instead of an employee.
  • Biden and Harris also have supported the California gig-economy law known as AB5 that was passed last year to classify contractors as employees, giving them access to various pay and benefit protections. But the law has become mired in controversy, with state lawmakers months later still signing off on exemptions.

The other side, via Axios' Alayna Treene: Trump administration officials argue that gig economy workers benefit from its policies to help businesses, such as pushing for liability protections from COVID lawsuits. But the Labor Department also has issued policies that made it harder for gig economy workers to collect unemployment benefits.

  • And last month, the Trump campaign sided with Uber and Lyft in a debate in California over whether the companies should classify their drivers as employees with full benefits. It argued that state law limits opportunities for gig workers by forcing them to be employees instead of independent contractors.
  • "The American worker, including those in the gig economy, has no bigger advocate than this President and unlike those in the radical left he will not regulate them out of business," said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

What they're saying: Carlos Ramos, a 39-year-old Lyft driver who's an organizer with Gig Workers Rising, a driver-led advocacy group in California, told Axios that he and others in his gig community are supportive of Biden but would welcome a conversation specifically about Latino gig workers.

  • "These policies put into place right now are disproportionately affecting people of color and it’s always good to give a good assessment of what’s going on," Ramos said.
  • "The worst possible case scenario is that nobody addresses this and 10 years from now we’re having the same conversation, the same fight, but we will be too far behind. There will be too many of these companies, they'll be too big, too influential, and there will be nothing we can do."

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