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Gig workers could end up losers in Covid relief bill

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Airbnb, Etsy and other pillars of the gig economy are shaping up to be rare losers in Democrats’ coronavirus relief package.

Buried in the legislation are provisions that will require them to provide a lot more information to the IRS about the money millions of people earn through their platforms, which is likely to bring in billions of dollars more in federal taxes.

That will generate cash Democrats can use to reduce the total cost of their stimulus plan.

But the industry says it’s getting ambushed, complaining it didn’t even know lawmakers were planning the tax crackdown until shortly before it was approved last week by the House. Company officials worry that asking people for their Social Security numbers — which the companies will need to produce the tax documents — and raising the specter of the IRS will scare many away from their platforms.

“We’re concerned that the proposal could unintentionally dissuade many casual and one-time sellers, who could be forced to share their Social Security number with online platforms before listing anything for sale,” said a spokesperson for Etsy. That could “turn away would-be entrepreneurs at a time when many desperately need the extra income.”

It’s not entirely clear who pushed for the provisions, though efforts to require more reporting by the industry aren’t new. A spokesperson for the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

The wrinkle comes as Senate Democrats debate the stimulus plan, which lawmakers aimed to get to President Joe Biden’s desk by March 14, when expanded jobless benefits expire. Much of the focus on the stimulus has been on its winners, though there would be a few losers as well.

For those in the sharing economy, the issue is provisions that would dramatically reduce the threshold at which companies like eBay, GrubHub, Doordash and others would have to report to the IRS the earnings of people who use their platforms to make money. The users would also have to be given the information.

Currently, that’s only necessary when someone earns more than $20,000 through at least 200 transactions. Democrats would drop that to anyone earning more than $600, regardless of the number of transactions.

That’s projected to generate a lot of money — $8.4 billion over the next decade, according to an official forecast — because people are more likely to pay taxes on their earnings when they know someone else is telling the IRS how much they made.

Unlike more traditional jobs, there is relatively little independent reporting of how much people in the gig economy earn. Many in service-related businesses are treated by their employers as contractors, for example, so they may not be having taxes withheld from their pay. They’re supposed to instead be paying estimated taxes each quarter.

Others, like people selling goods on eBay, Etsy or Facebook, are just average people trying to make some extra cash.

Many may not track how much they’ve earned or realize that it’s subject to tax, in part because they don’t make enough to trigger the current income reporting requirements, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a report last year.

“Platform workers may not receive information on their earnings, creating compliance challenges for them and enforcement challenges for IRS,” GAO said.

That makes the area ripe for tax cheating.

The issue has been on lawmakers’ radar for several years, though much of the focus had been on a competing proposal by Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). He has a more sweeping plan that would deal with things like worker classification rules while also imposing tougher income-reporting requirements, although not as stringent as Democrats are proposing.

Industry lobbyists say they did not anticipate Democrats swiping Thune’s idea and repurposing it for their coronavirus measure.

Said Thune: “I will continue to support a comprehensive approach to truly help workers in the gig economy.”

Proposals to raise money via so-called third-party reporting have long been popular with lawmakers searching for cash because they generate revenue but are neither tax increases nor spending cuts. And the $8.4 billion the gig worker proposal raises helps keep Democrats within their $1.9 trillion budget for the coronavirus relief.

The industry says it does not condone tax cheating. But it says Democrats’ reporting threshold is too low and would affect too many people who only sometimes use their platforms.

The companies say the tax requirements may come as a surprise to many, who might not understand what is being reported. The IRS form the companies would use — the 1099K — would report the gross amount of money someone has earned.

That isn’t necessarily what they’d have to pay tax on, though. The tax would only apply to their profits, after their own costs or expenses are deducted.

So if someone sold a bike on eBay for $800, for example, they’d get a form showing that. But if they had originally paid $1,000 for the bike, they likely wouldn’t owe the IRS.

“This is not about skirting tax obligations,” said Katie Vlietstra, vice president for government relations and public affairs at the National Association for the Self-Employed.

“A lot of people are cobbling together different ways to make it to the next paycheck,” she said.

“And this is going to be whiplash for a whole community of people.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Faler is senior tax reporter at Politico. Before coming to Politico in 2013, he was a congressional reporter at Bloomberg News. Before that, he was an assistant to the late, great David Broder at the Washington Post.


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Surveillance, Stress, and No Bathrooms: Life as an Amazon Driver

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Part 2 of a series on Amazon’s delivery drivers. Part 1, “Building Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers,” is here.

The Amazonification of logistics has created a new group of highly exploited workers: delivery drivers. Amazon itself increasingly relies on an expanding network of subcontracted drivers and independent contractors to deliver packages to customers’ doors.

The working conditions facing Amazon’s last-mile drivers are defined by a frantic pace, low wages, and relentless pressure to meet tight delivery deadlines. Workers of color and immigrants are overrepresented, as they are in all the lowest-paying segments of last-mile logistics. 

When an Amazon Prime member orders an item, the first step in the delivery process begins at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, where the item is picked by a worker and put into a box, and an address label is created.

From there, the package is typically sent to an Amazon Sortation Center, where it is sorted. Then it’s sent either to the post office or, increasingly, to an Amazon Delivery Center, where Amazon’s subcontracted Delivery Service Provider (DSP) drivers pick up their routes.

Each Amazon Delivery Center typically contracts with 12–20 DSPs. Most of the drivers I spoke with said they usually have the same daily route. As the workday starts at the delivery center, hundreds of drivers pick up their “racks”: pallets of Prime packages. Any package that arrives at a delivery center must be delivered that day.

‘WATCHING ME DRIVE’

To get a sense of what work is like for these subcontracted drivers, I accompanied 30-year-old Miguel on some of his shifts throughout the Los Angeles region. Miguel is an undocumented immigrant; he was born in Mexico and migrated to the U.S. as a baby in the early 1990s. He grew up in L.A. and worked in fast food for 10 years before becoming a delivery driver.

Miguel typically works four 10-hour shifts each week, with an occasional opportunity for an extra day of overtime. He earns $15.50 per hour and receives no health benefits. While Amazon is not technically his employer, Miguel exclusively delivers Amazon Prime packages.

Miguel’s shift starts at 7:30 a.m., when he picks up his “bag.” A driver’s bag contains the keys to the delivery van and an Amazon “Rabbit” delivery device.

The Rabbit is an Android smartphone, which tracks the driver’s movements in real time and dictates each step of the delivery route. It provides information on each delivery, access codes to enter apartment buildings, and notes on where to leave packages.

The Rabbit also gives the driver information about the Prime customer (name, address, phone number) and the size of each package. As soon as a package is delivered, the driver must take a picture to prove it.

“The Rabbit stresses me out,” Miguel said. “I’m constantly staring at it and thinking someone at Amazon is constantly watching me drive.”

Once Miguel finds his van in the parking lot, he proceeds to the Amazon Delivery Center and waits for his rack. There’s a long line of other DSP drivers also waiting. Each rack has between 225 and 350 packages.

On one particular day I joined him, Miguel’s rack contained 227 packages, amounting to 161 stops. A driver typically puts all the small envelopes and packages up front in the cab and leaves the large boxes in the rear of the van. Since I was riding in the front seat, I had to hold dozens of small packages on my lap.

If drivers finish their shifts early, the DSP may assign them as “rescue drivers” to assist others who have fallen behind on their delivery routes.

CONSTANTLY RUSHING

“One thing that can be stressful is that my boss always knows exactly where I am because of the Rabbit,” Miguel told me. “So if I am behind on my route they tell me about it… They call me on the radio and tell me to hurry up.

“On most days, I don’t even have time to take a full lunch break, so I just go to a drive-through. And if I’m lucky I’ll just eat in the van as I am working… You are constantly rushing. You can’t find parking, or the Rabbit gets screwed up…

“I’ve also been accused of stealing packages, especially in rich white neighborhoods. They see a Hispanic driving around and think I am a package thief. My [company] will soon be giving us Amazon-branded uniforms and blue Amazon vans, which I’m happy about because that will help people realize that I am not a porch pirate…

“Also, I wish we got paid more. I think we deserve it. I work really hard and I don’t have health benefits, so if I get sick or hurt, I have to pay out of pocket.”

Miguel and many other drivers I interviewed emphasized that it is Amazon, not the DSPs, that needs to pay better wages.

Drivers described a physically demanding work environment. They feel pressured to drive at dangerous speeds, blow stop signs, and skip breaks and meals to meet the tight deadlines. Traffic and congestion stress them out. They also reported safety violations, wage theft, intimidation, favoritism, and a lack of overtime pay.

“I lost over 30 pounds since I started this job,” said Rogelio, a 26-year-old Latino driver. “This job takes a lot of running… I twisted my ankle stepping off a curb a couple months ago… it really slowed me down. I had to keep working though, but it was really swollen.”

Rogelio told me that he only stops to use the bathroom once per shift, usually at the same public toilet near a park along his route. “During Prime week,” Rogelio said, “I was way behind on my route. All I ate that day was a granola bar and an apple—for almost 11 hours! I hate Prime Day.”

‘ONE PACKAGE COST ME $150’

When a DSP driver fails to deliver a package, or even when a package is stolen from the doorstep of a customer’s home, Amazon contacts the DSP with what drivers call a “concession.”

Concessions occur when Amazon Prime members submit a complaint to Amazon over a missed delivery. When a concession is issued, the individual driver is reprimanded by a superior.

Alex is a 37-year-old Latino driver who has been working for his DSP for 10 months. He told me, “Amazon put a concession on me a few months after I started. My boss called me in, and he asked why I didn’t take a picture of the package that disappeared. I told him that I did, but for some reason it didn’t get logged by the Rabbit. I was written up [by my boss] and he took away one of my shifts that week as punishment. That one package cost me 150 bucks.

“For the next few weeks, my boss tightened the screws on me… He was always on me, calling and texting me to hurry up… When an item gets stolen, they blame the drivers.”

“Here’s the thing,” Justin, a Filipino driver, told me. “I’m 42 years old. I have four kids and I make $15 an hour. I get about $1,250 every two weeks. That’s not enough to make it out here in LA. If I didn’t have a family, I’d leave this area.

“I basically do the same work as a UPS driver, but those guys get paid double what I earn, at least. We don’t have representation with any union. So that’s why I take as much overtime as possible, my boss knows I’ll take any extra work—but it’s a really tiring job at times.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on February 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a sociology professor at Cal State-Long Beach. He is the co-editor, with Ellen Reese, of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2020). This piece is an edited excerpt from the book. 


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Amazon to pay huge settlement in wage theft case

This week in “Amazon is scum” news, on Tuesday the company reached a $61.7 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over a longstanding practice of stealing tips from delivery drivers.

Drivers for Amazon Flex were recruited with the promise of $18 to $25 an hour plus customer tips, and that’s how it worked in 2015 and 2016. But then Amazon started taking some customer tips, while telling the drivers that that wasn’t happening. According to the FTC, “In late 2016, the FTC alleges, Amazon shifted from paying drivers the promised rate of $18–25 per hour plus the full amount of customer tips to paying drivers a lower hourly rate, a shift that it did not disclose to drivers. Amazon used the customer tips to make up the difference between the new lower hourly rate and the promised rate. This resulted in drivers’ being shorted more than $61.7 million in tips.”

This wasn’t innocent and it wasn’t out in the open. Amazon “then intentionally failed to notify drivers of the changes to its pay plan and even took steps to make the changes obscure to drivers.”

Such wage theft and sneaky changes to payment practices are common at gig economy companies. DoorDash similarly took tips from drivers and used them to cover the drivers’ base pay and was forced by an outcry to change its practices. Other companies have repeatedly changed algorithms for pay, insisting to workers that it wasn’t a pay cut—inevitably a lie.

Drivers who were stiffed should eventually get the money Amazon owes them, but it may take some time. “An FTC spokesperson said Amazon Flex drivers who think they may have been impacted should sign up for email updates here,” Vox reports. “The settlement also prohibits Amazon from misrepresenting driver earnings and tips, and requires the company to notify drivers before making any future changes to how it handles tips.”

”Rather than passing along 100% of customers’ tips to drivers, as it had promised to do, Amazon used the money itself,” Daniel Kaufman, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “Our action today returns to drivers the tens of millions of dollars in tips that Amazon misappropriated, and requires Amazon to get drivers’ permission before changing its treatment of tips in the future.”

“The @FTC has long been lax when it comes to abuses in the gig economy and anticompetitive conduct targeting workers,” Rohit Chopra, the FTC commissioner who is President Biden’s nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tweeted. “The agency’s order against @Amazon will provide restitution to the tech giant’s driver victims. I hope it also turns the page on the FTC’s era of inaction.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.

Building Its Own Delivery Network, Amazon Puts the Squeeze On Drivers

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While millions have lost their jobs and thousands of small businesses have shut their doors, at least one company has thrived during the pandemic: Amazon. The e-commerce behemoth controls 40 percent of online sales and has amassed record profits. The net worth of founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has jumped to $186 billion, up more than $70 billion since March. 

Amazon’s continued growth and dominance in online retailing are due to its mastery of logistics—including its investment in building the world’s largest contingent (that is, not made up of permanent employees) last-mile delivery network, with over 500,000 contracted drivers globally. 

Last-mile logistics workers complete the final steps of delivery to a consumer’s home (or a neighborhood Amazon locker). While most packages in the U.S. are still delivered by the big four—UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the Postal Service (USPS)—Amazon is increasingly building out its own delivery network, posing a major threat to these firms and to working conditions in the industry. 

THE LAST-MILE PROBLEM

In contrast to big-box retailers that rely heavily on warehouse workers hired through temp agencies, Amazon directly employs hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers around the world (though it still regularly hires temps during peak periods). 

However, in the last-mile delivery sector, Amazon has taken a different approach: expanding its network of contingent and subcontracted drivers.

The last mile is one of most labor-intensive components of the e-commerce supply chain. Nearly one-third of the total cost of shipping goods occurs here. Logistics experts have described the challenges facing e-commerce firms as “the last-mile problem,” since the final leg of delivery usually involves multiple stops with small packages.

To decrease its dependence on the big four (including the unionized UPS and USPS), Amazon has invested in parcel delivery. By 2019, around half of Amazon Prime packages in the U.S. were delivered by subcontractors or contingent workers.

AN UBER FOR PACKAGES

Amazon Flex drivers are gig workers treated as independent contractors, similar to Uber drivers. They are paid per completion of a delivery route, not by the hour. Flex drivers must provide their own vehicles or rent delivery vans.

Independent contractors lack the legal rights of employees to unionize and enforce minimum wage protections. In 2019, a group of Amazon Flex Drivers based in California sued Amazon, claiming that the company had intentionally misclassified Flex drivers as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime and employee benefits.

In addition to Flex, the company is increasingly relying on its Delivery Service Partners program, rolled out in 2018. DSPs are small subcontracted parcel delivery firms with 20–40 delivery vans apiece—considered “independent” of Amazon, though they exclusively deliver packages for Amazon Prime customers.

SUBCONTRACTED DRIVERS

DSP fleets are limited to 40 vans to complicate unionization efforts and to increase Amazon’s flexibility and power over the price paid per delivery. Limiting their size makes it difficult for these small firms to gain leverage against Amazon. Each DSP manages between 40 and 100 employees.

I live in Southern California, one of Amazon’s largest markets in the world. For years, it was most common here to see white unmarked delivery vans with workers wearing reflective vests hustling Amazon Prime packages through the streets. Today, however, most DSPs lease grey-blue Amazon-branded delivery vans and Amazon uniforms for their drivers. And yet, despite their appearance, these subcontracted delivery drivers do not formally work for Amazon.

The majority of these drivers in Southern California work eight- to 10-hour shifts and earn about $15 per hour. Many do not receive health insurance benefits. 

These workers face extreme pressure to meet the demands of Amazon’s tight delivery terms. During peak holiday periods, the number of deliveries can reach as high as 400 per shift. Drivers complain of unpaid overtime, poor working conditions, and unrealistic expectations and pressures set by Amazon.

Between Flex and the DSPs, Amazon’s expanding market power has introduced new levels of exploitation for thousands of delivery drivers, many of them workers of color and immigrants. 

SPEED-UP AND SURVEILLANCE

Walmart became the world’s largest corporation by developing a sophisticated logistics management program, which reduced inefficiencies in the movement of consumer goods across thousands of miles.

However, the supply-chain management approach that Walmart perfected in the big-box era has not adapted well to the rapid changes brought on by the growth of e-commerce.

Big-box retailers have struggled to compete because their infrastructure was built to accommodate long-distance shipping. E-commerce depends upon a more localized and fragmented distribution and delivery system. 

Consumers demand increasingly fast delivery to their homes; the Amazon Prime program has driven further consumer demand for expedited free shipping. All this creates pressure on workers in both warehousing and last-mile delivery to speed up.

Connected to this speed-up are technologies that track workers’ movements and speed in real time. Amazon is the industry leader in worker surveillance across the global supply chain.

Amazon’s logistics infrastructure relies upon this exploitation and hyper-surveillance of both warehouse workers and contracted delivery drivers. In global labor organizing, joining these two groups together will be critical to worker power.

SQUEEZING THE COMPETITION

To compete with Amazon, FedEx has begun to tap into the e-commerce market by working with hybrid retailers (big-box stores that combine offline and online sales) that offer in-store pickup.

According to FedEx, approximately half of all online purchases occur after 4 p.m. This prompted the company to roll out a new late-night shipping option, giving retailers the opportunity to offer next-day shipping on orders placed as late as midnight. 

FedEx Express drivers pick up the packages from retailers as late as 2 a.m. and take them to sorting hubs. Deliveries can occur as soon as the next day within the local market, and two days for destinations farther away.

The late-night shipping program began in 2017 as a pilot in Los Angeles. Since then it has entered 100 local markets. Using the physical infrastructure of big-box retail outlets as a point of competitive advantage, FedEx has increased the speed from fulfillment centers to delivery to less than 24 hours. 

Competition between Amazon and hybrid retail firms has fueled a race to capture the last-mile market in other ways, too. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, at a price of $13.7 billion, had less to do with groceries and more to do with increasing its last-mile market share.

By acquiring Whole Foods, Amazon instantly added to its delivery network 440 refrigerated warehouses within 10 miles of 80 percent of the population. Since the acquisition, Amazon Flex drivers routinely use Whole Foods stores to drop off and pick up packages at Amazon lockers. The acquisition also improved Amazon’s last-mile market position in relation to its hybrid retail competitors Walmart and Target.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is a sociology professor at Cal State-Long Beach. He is the co-editor, with Ellen Reese, of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2020). This piece is an edited excerpt from the book. Read a review here.


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New York City Drivers Cooperative Aims to Smash Uber’s Exploitative Model

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Ken Lewis grew up on the island of Grena­da, and wit­nessed the pro­gres­sive after­math of its 1979 rev­o­lu­tion. ?“I remem­ber the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives, peo­ple get­ting land, turn­ing places that were bar­ren into pro­duc­tive places,” he says. That image stayed with him after he moved to New York City for grad school and start­ed dri­ving a taxi on the side. Now, sev­er­al decades lat­er, Lewis is final­ly get­ting a chance to put the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives into prac­tice, in ser­vice of the dri­vers he worked with for so long. 

He is one of three cofounders of The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive (TDC), which aims to real­ize a long-held dream of social­ly con­scious New York­ers in a hur­ry: a rideshar­ing app that you can feel good about. When it rolls out to the pub­lic ear­ly next year, TDC will become New York City’s first work­er-owned rideshar­ing plat­form?—?owned by the dri­vers them­selves, rather than by big investors and exec­u­tives. Its founders’ brazen idea is that TDC can actu­al­ly gain a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage over Uber and Lyft?—?sav­ing mon­ey and fun­nel­ing those sav­ings back to dri­vers?—?by doing away with the most exploita­tive prac­tices of that dom­i­nant duop­oly. ?“The way the [Uber] mod­el is orga­nized is extrac­tive. It takes out the mon­ey and doesn’t give back much. Imag­ine a com­pa­ny that doesn’t have any prof­its, but has cre­at­ed bil­lion­aires,” Lewis says. ?“That mon­ey comes from drivers.” 

Erik For­man, a vet­er­an labor activist and orga­niz­er, became inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with the dark side of that extrac­tive mod­el when he was work­ing as a staff mem­ber at the Inde­pen­dent Dri­vers Guild, a union-affil­i­at­ed group that orga­nizes rideshare dri­vers in New York. Com­pa­nies that oper­ate in the indus­try reg­u­lar­ly push much of the risk of employ­ment onto the dri­vers by clas­si­fy­ing them as ?“inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” rather than employ­ees. But they also push the costs of the job onto the work­ers, forc­ing them to pay for their own car and main­te­nance (not to men­tion things like health­care ben­e­fits). Instead of being paid to work, in oth­er words, rideshar­ing apps?—?like oth­er ?“gig econ­o­my” com­pa­nies?—?make peo­ple pay in order to work. When Uber launched in New York City in 2011, it was an attrac­tive alter­na­tive for many who had pre­vi­ous­ly been taxi dri­vers, with decent pay and lit­tle reg­u­la­tion. But in sub­se­quent years, Uber cut pay rates while the num­ber of dri­vers rose, leav­ing many who had tak­en out loans to buy cars for their job strug­gling to meet their debt oblig­a­tions and earn a living. 

For­man, who has been through bit­ter union bat­tles with big com­pa­nies, real­ized that for the same amount of effort, work­ers could prob­a­bly start their own ven­ture?—?lead­ing him to help cofound the rideshar­ing coop. ?“The indus­try seems unique­ly in need of a sys­tem change based on work­er own­er­ship,” he says. “[TDC] is not anoth­er com­pa­ny try­ing to get mon­ey out of dri­vers. It’s the opposite.”

In fact, the lack of exploita­tion is also The Dri­vers Cooperative’s finan­cial advan­tage. For one thing, the bil­lions of dol­lars that Uber has spent on mar­ket­ing the con­cept of rideshar­ing mean that TDC has lit­tle need for big ad bud­gets. Their plan is to grow by build­ing a net­work of dri­vers, using press and word of mouth. And while Uber and Lyft take around a quar­ter of the mon­ey from each trip (some of it to pay for all that mar­ket­ing), the coop plans to take only 15%. By com­bin­ing the pur­chas­ing pow­er of all the mem­bers, they hope to low­er expens­es on costs like gas and insur­ance?—?expens­es that Uber and Lyft dri­vers must han­dle on their own. They project that this should all add up to 8?–?10% high­er earn­ings for dri­vers on every ride, even while being able to beat their com­peti­tors on fare prices. And if the coop has any prof­its left at the end of the year, they will be paid out to dri­vers as dividends. 

Nobody under­stands the fun­da­men­tal con­trast with Uber’s busi­ness mod­el bet­ter than the third cofounder, Alis­sa Orlan­do?—?because she used to work for Uber. Her stint as the head of Uber’s oper­a­tions in East Africa left her dis­il­lu­sioned with the company’s preda­to­ry con­trol over its dri­vers, embod­ied in the way it uni­lat­er­al­ly cut earn­ings, deac­ti­vat­ed dri­vers alto­geth­er, or sad­dled them with unsus­tain­able car loans, all while claim­ing they were work­ing togeth­er. ?“We called dri­vers part­ners to the extent that it helped us” main­tain favor­able reg­u­la­to­ry sta­tus, Orlan­do says, ?“but they were nev­er partners.” 

Now she is using her expe­ri­ence in ven­ture cap­i­tal and plat­form-based busi­ness­es on behalf of TDC, a scrap­pi­er job that allows her to sleep bet­ter at night. Meet­ing with New York City dri­vers to recruit them into the coop, she’s heard count­less sto­ries of the impos­si­ble choic­es that dri­vers are forced to make?—?like the woman who said that a half dozen pas­sen­gers get into her car with­out a mask every week, but if she objects, they give her a low rat­ing. ?“She has to make this choice between ensur­ing that she’s safe, and the poten­tial threat of deac­ti­va­tion,” Orlan­do says. 

Moham­mad Hossen, a rideshare dri­ver who serves on the coop’s advi­so­ry board, says that the pan­dem­ic has act­ed as an accel­er­ant for the urgency of the new project. His income from dri­ving has fall­en by two-thirds, to just $100 a day, and costs for dis­in­fec­tant and oth­er safe­ty mea­sures?—?paid out of his own pock­et?—?have gone up. The shared predica­ment has allowed him to suc­cess­ful­ly recruit oth­er dri­vers, while they wait for hours at the air­port to get a fare. ?“At the end of the day, you have no life, no secu­ri­ty, no future,” Hossen says. ?“We real­ize that, and we suffer.” 

That could change when dri­vers are also the company’s own­ers. The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive is start­ing a pilot project this month giv­ing rides to work­ers for the Bronx-based Coop­er­a­tive Home Care Asso­ciates, an exam­ple of cross-coop coop­er­a­tion. Founders hope to even­tu­al­ly recruit sev­er­al thou­sand dri­vers in the city, and say recruit­ment is going well. They aim to roll out their own app and open for busi­ness in the first quar­ter of 2021. Their even­tu­al goal, they say, is 10% of the $5 bil­lion New York City rideshare mar­ket, and expan­sion into oth­er cities. For now, though, they will be sat­is­fied with mak­ing a good idea a reality.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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Why companies based on gig work are hurting more than their employees

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Imagine that one of two people will be responsible for your safety. The first receives health and dental benefits, earns more than minimum wage, has clear advancement options within their company, and may even belong to a union. The second has no insurance benefits, works wildly erratic hours, feels no allegiance to their company, and makes less money. Which person would you pick?

The ride-share and micromobility industry is under the microscope for worker violations and safety concerns. Major shared e-scooter companies are facing lawsuits from injured riders. Revel, a moped company operating in New York City, recently reopened operations after a shutdown earlier this year, as complaints about reckless driving and fatalities involving its vehicles mounted. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft face a number of lawsuits related to allegations by passengers of injury, assault, and harassment. A California ballot measure asking voters whether gig workers should count as employees has shown that many Americans are understandably focused on legal and legislative methods to introduce more order and security to the gig economy.

Like most startup industries, the companies providing these new mobility options are scrappy, doing things on the fly, and, at times, operating shortsightedly. This needs to change. As these forms of transportation edge their way to being a supplementary public transportation in a pandemic and beyond, we need to take this responsibility seriously.  After all, when the public gets on a bus, they don’t imagine the bus’s tires were changed not at a company-designated station but in someone’s garage.

Companies themselves would be wise to consider moving away from the gig economy and choosing to play a greater role in ensuring the well-being of their workers because doing so is fundamentally linked to the safety of their consumers and the success of their business.

Outdoor apparel giant Patagonia is famous for taking this approach: With generous time off, on-site child care, and the doors locked on weekends, the company has doubled in size since 2008 and is currently expanding into new markets. Employee turnover is minimal. CEOs and business school professors are increasingly aware that giving workers better wages and benefits also tends to be a recipe for greater profitability and employee retention in the long run.

Of course, any business has to keep an eye on the bottom line, but the damage done from rider injuries and safety lawsuits gives pause—financial pause, especially with potential liabilities tied up. But also pause because if you are hurting your customers, it’s not great for your brand. Investing in worker safety and well-being is more expensive in the short term, certainly. But in the long term, it leads to a more profitable company.

In 2019, my company, Spin, chose to make more than 90% of its workers employees with benefits, as opposed to contractors. In all markets our lowest starting wage is $15 per hour, with incremental increases based on tenure. We did this in part because research has shown that companies with healthy employees have better business performance. Companies with excellent safety, environment, and health programs outperform the S&P 500 by 3%-5%. But also because gig workers are less likely to have been thoroughly trained, more likely to leave for another job, and are often incentivized to cut corners in order to keep a high number of scooters on the streets and boost their own apparent productivity. This is unacceptable. Carefully training and fairly compensating the employees who work to keep our scooters safe for riders ensures that employees face no perverse incentives to rush through their work.

Safety out there also begins with safety in the home base. Designating our workers as employees with benefits—as opposed to contractors—allowed us to put protocols in place in both operations and maintenance and high standards endorsed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This operation would have been much less achievable with an ad hoc staff.

In order for companies in the ride-share and shared mobility space to truly unleash their potential, we must first gain public trust by improving the job we do on safety. Part of this will require that city planners and urban voters reimagine the nature of transportation infrastructure away from cars and toward biking, walking, and scooter transportation. It’s also vital that companies themselves give their workers every reason to do careful, excellent work in maintaining their fleets. As private-public partnerships create another way for people to move around, we need to make sure our workers are as supported as the workers behind transit agencies.

As the pandemic continues to demonstrate, the choice between safety and economic growth is a false reality, and companies should not pose these options against one another. At the end of the day, treating workers well is ultimately the safest choice for both businesses and their customers.

This blog originally appeared at Fast Company on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kyle Rowe is the global head of government partnerships at Spin, the micromobility unit of Ford Mobility.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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Seattle makes DoorDash and Postmates pay out COVID-19 hazard pay

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Seattle really pissed off gig economy companies by imposing $2.50 in hazard pay for each food delivery order during the pandemic. It’s no surprise that some of the big companies stiffed their workers—but there is a surprise here: Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards (OLS) successfully pressured DoorDash and Postmates to do internal audits and pay up.

“After receiving calls from gig workers, OLS contacted the companies, informing them that if the companies resolved issues regarding premium pay and paid workers back pay and interest by a certain date, OLS would forego a formal investigation,” OLS told Eater Seattle. In all, DoorDash paid $111,435 to 2,998 Seattle workers, and Postmates paid $250,515 to 2,975 workers.

”The city is making clear to these multi-billion dollar delivery companies that they’re not above the law,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington and Fair Work Center, said in a statement. “Our worker protections are only as good as our ability to enforce them, and Seattle is demonstrating once again why we’re a national model for enforcing labor standards.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on September 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Return of the Lockout: Uber and Lyft Try to Strong-Arm California

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In August a California court ordered Uber and Lyft to reclassify more than 100,000 drivers as regular employees. The two companies, which depend on a business model that defines drivers as independent contractors, got the decision lifted for at least a few months.

But in the meantime their threat to shut down operations in California—and thereby fire thousands of drivers while ending service to millions of customers—raises the question: What do we call this extraordinary corporate stratagem? A public relations gambit? A pressure tactic? Blackmail? A capital strike?

It’s all of the above, but the best historical analogy is the “lockout,” a disreputable, two-century-old employer weapon designed to force workers to knuckle under.

A WEAPON AGAINST SKILLED WORKERS

The Homestead strike of 1892 began as a stoppage by skilled workers who resisted demands by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick to slash wages and union power. Frick erected a fence around the entire mill, locked out all employees, and called in a barge full of Pinkerton private police to protect the scabs he hoped to recruit. When workers routed the Pinkertons in a bloody battle, it took the importation of National Guard troops from Philadelphia to put power back in capitalist hands.

Late 19th century lockouts were not uncommon because the status quo had tilted in favor of elite workers: skilled labor controlled the shop floor in many mills and mines and on construction sites, even as deflation was increasing the value of their nominal wages. Bosses responded with lockouts to force concessions and wage cuts.

Lockouts were far less frequent in the mid-20th century decades of union power and successful collective bargaining. That’s when workers went on strike themselves and almost always came out ahead.

But beginning in the 1980s, when just holding on to the contract provisions won in earlier bargaining rounds was often counted a union success, lockouts returned as an employer weapon. Managers locked out union workers in major battles at Caterpillar, the Detroit newspapers, and A.E. Staley in the 1990s. In more recent years, they used the same tactic at Honeywell and National Grid, a Massachusetts gas distribution utility.

Remarkably, the most high-profile lockouts have arisen in professional sports. Here players established strong unions that captured some of the enormous revenue generated by game broadcast rights. And free agency contracts enabled some stars to win enormous salaries. Owners struck back, precipitating lockouts that wrecked the training season: in 2011, the NFL locked out players for 136 days and the NBA did the same for 161 days. The following year, NHL owners locked out players for 119 days.

GIG WORKERS’ FUTURE AT STAKE

But what does all this have to do with Uber and Lyft? Their drivers are not unionized, after all. True, but they have won, in California courts and legislature, a considerable employment-rights victory that, if and when enforced, will transform the meaning of work in the gig economy, greatly enhancing income and security for many.

Last year California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that requires Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and many other companies to reclassify as regular employees workers currently illegally treated as independent contractors. This means that in the future they will be paid a more predictable wage, earn sick leave and Social Security credits, and find themselves covered by worker compensation and unemployment benefit laws.

And they will be legally entitled to unionize, in which case workers and managers can negotiate a contact that gives drivers as much “flexibility” as Uber and Lyft now claim they want.

So, like the skilled workers of late 19th century America, gig economy drivers and DoorDash “shoppers” now find the status quo theoretically on their side. At least in California, they are on the verge of enjoying work rights that gig employers want to gut. To do so Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have amassed a $181 million war chest to pass Proposition 22 on the November California ballot. That proposition would once again legalize contract work for millions of workers who by any reasonable definition are regular employees.

Uber and Lyft are strong-arming Californians. They hope their threat will convince drivers to abandon their rights and persuade California riders to endorse the theft.

BLUSTER

In 1941 Henry Ford threatened to shut down his company if workers voted for the United Auto Workers. They did and yet Ford continues to this day. Management bluster is often just bluster, which is probably the case with Uber and Lyft.

But in the last month, they have proposed another way to keep employees from their rights: create a set of franchises to employ their drivers, if Proposition 22 passes. Franchising is an old trick, as any employee at McDonald’s, Days Inn, FedEx, or Jiffy Lube can attest. Workers are legally employees in a franchise, but the real employer, the one with the money and power, remains legally aloof. Workers get squeezed and unionization brings few benefits.

So the lockout, once thought a relic of Gilded Age America, has returned with a vengeance, ingenuity, and determination that would have made Henry Frick envious. We need an equally radical rededication to the concept of jobs with rights, and the rewards, monetary and moral, that are their just compensation.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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Nationalize Payrolls Now; Gig Work is a Fancy Name for Exploitation; Domestic Workers in the Pandemic

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Calling people “gig” workers is a subtle trap. “Gig” can sound anywhere from upbeat to just a mundane description. The truth is the “gig” economy is just another way of exploiting people and it’s a dream for all capitalists to have a pool of workers who can be used and abused at the beckon call of a supply chain or a big tech company, at the lowest cost possible. And not a surprise—lots of gig workers are at great risk during the pandemic. I explore the lives of “gig” workers in a conversation with Bama Athreya, an economic policy fellow at the Open Society Foundation and a veteran social movement activist.

The pandemic has put domestic workers at risk. Think of it logically: you can be locked down in a home with your client, essentially enslaved, with nowhere to go and no social distancing space. You could easily be trapped in a home, forced to stay inside because of a curfew, without personal protection equipment. Elizabeth Tang, the General Secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation, joins me from her perch in Hong Kong to talk about the pandemic threats facing domestic workers.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on May 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. He is President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.


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