Opinion

For many workers, ‘gig economy’ has a dark side

A delivery person -- an independent contractor? -- on the job. (Photo: Davide Bonaldo, via Shutterstock)

The expanding gig economy in California is often praised for giving workers flexibility and independence. Be your own boss, set your own schedule, companies tout, and these companies would like us to think that drivers, cleaners and personal shoppers actually prefer the gig economy to traditional employment. The rosy spin ignores the reality for California’s low-wage workers.

For people like Maria, a janitor, contract work was never a choice. Even though she worked cleaning a 24-Hour Fitness gym for five years, Maria’s employment status changed suddenly when her employer decided that all janitors would be hired as independent contractors instead of employees.

Sadly, workers who are paid low-wages and given only an independent contracting option, are often too afraid to leave their jobs, despite the significant losses in income and benefits.

She never gained the promised flexibility of independent contracting—Maria was told to show up for work at the same place and perform the exact same duties. The only difference was that she no longer had the same rights and wages that she once had as an employee. Instead of her normal hourly wage and overtime pay, she would be paid a flat fee regardless of the hours she worked. If she got hurt at work, her employer would no longer be accountable.

For Maria, the so-called ‘independence’ of contract work meant nothing more than a state of limbo and constant financial uncertainty. She wasn’t an independent contractor thriving in the gig economy — she was a misclassified employee with less money and no protection.

Businesses want us to think that contract work is a fun and flexible choice, but experiences like Maria’s are far more common than you’d think. In my work leading a nonprofit that has successfully won more than $80 million in lost wages for people working as janitors in California, I have met hundreds of workers who have been denied their rights through this scheme. In a race to the bottom, companies lower their costs, not only undercut workers, but also the good guys—companies that follow the law and classify workers correctly.

Sadly, workers who are paid low-wages and given only an independent contracting option, are often too afraid to leave their jobs, despite the significant losses in income and benefits, because finding a new job can mean even more uncertainty in their hours and even less stability for families.

Workers who’ve experienced the reality of being shifted from an employee to an independent contractor aren’t fooled by empty promises of increased flexibility.

Last April, low-wage workers like Maria won a major victory in the California Supreme Court’s Dynamex decision, which established clear rules to distinguish between an employee and an independent contractor. Unlike a traditional employer-employee relationship, the court said, independent contractors must be unsupervised and perform work that the company isn’t otherwise doing, and they shouldn’t just be working for one company.

This crucial decision makes it harder for businesses to misclassify employees and force workers into “substandard wages or working conditions,” as the court wrote. But now, the court ruling that both protects workers and their law-abiding employers is under attack as interest groups pressure legislators to override this commonsense ruling.

Employers claim they only want more flexibility for freelancers who love their independence, but these companies’ true motives are clear: they are seeking to protect their ability to cut corners on wages, payroll taxes and to continue denying required benefits like workers’ compensation, unemployment, insurance, and paid sick leave.

Workers who’ve experienced the reality of being shifted from an employee to an independent contractor aren’t fooled by empty promises of increased flexibility. Thankfully, key legislators aren’t fooled either. With the full support of low-wage workers like Maria, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced AB 5, a bill that upholds the Dynamex decision and ensures that corporations won’t be able to misclassify workers in order to cut corners on wages, benefits, and safety.

With AB 5, California leaders have a clear choice in front of them. They can decide to listen to unscrupulous employers and corporate giants that profit off of the independent contractor arrangement, or we can listen to companies that do right by their employees and workers who deserve fair pay and benefits.

Editor’s Note: Lilia García-Brower is the executive director of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), an organization working to strengthen workplace protections for low-wage and immigrant workers in California.


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