New Orleans When talking about the gig economy, a gig is defined as a short-term job, a little something extra even though we have come to find that for some workers all of their work is composed of a series of gigs. Musicians famously called their collection of jobs gigs, but that didn’t mean they were happy with the business model as anyone could learn by sitting in a meeting at your local musicians union hall.
Others know that a gig is a spear of sorts, usually with a long handle and one or more sharp points attached. Youngsters in the South along the coasts, riverbanks, and swamp-lands have often looked forward to summer nights walking in the swallow waters of the gulf for example with a lantern in one hand and the gig in another to spear flounder lying in the water. Gigging frogs was also popular. Not to make too fine a point, but understand that gigging is a killing sport.
The Department of Labor in a new opinion letter, after having held during the Obama administration recommendation that workers in the gig economy were employees of their companies, rather than independent contractors, has now in a specific case held the opposite, potentially making a gift of billions of dollars to what I believe we need to call the gigging economy and its companies. The company involved in this case is not named but its workers were residential cleaners. Declaring them contractors allows the companies to escape payments for unemployment and Social Security, making this work even more precarious and deferring the private responsibilities to these workers to all of us in the public as taxpayers, while also allowing them to escape the obligations of paying even the federal minimum wage or overtime.
Make no mistake about the size of this potential giveaway to companies whose entire business plan is based on exploiting workers, because the industry estimates, according to the New York Times, that classifying them as workers would add 20 to 30% to their labor costs. Make no mistake either about whether or not this action ends up near the top of the list as the most anti-worker by the Trump administration. There are wide disagreements on the number and impact of workers being gigged from one to five million in some absolute estimates of workers doing some gigs to other estimates that are less based on aggregating the small jobs against the impact of full-time work on the economy. Either way, there’s no way to put lipstick on this pig.
The DOL provides some hope in between the lines by establishing what may become criteria for determining the degree of independence that would keep a worker from being gigged. “In explaining its conclusion about the company in question, the department cited the fact that workers had the freedom to choose when, where and how long they worked; the fact that they provided their own equipment’ and the fact that the company did not have a mandatory training program.” Additionally, at this company, “…workers…have some room for negotiating pay, although the company provides default prices, and are permitted to schedule future jobs with the same customer without using the platform.”
It’s a slender reed, but for now, it’s about all we have between us and millions of workers being gigged.