The Predatory Fight to Keep Workers Temporary and “Independent”

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

Little Rock      Once upon a time we might have been able to look at the Department of Labor to lead the way in drawing the bright lines that establish whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, regular or temporary.  If that didn’t work, perhaps there might be some way to look at cases before the National Labor Relations Board that were forced to decide whether a worker was regular enough to vote and be part of a bargaining unit or temporary, casual, and out of luck.  Those were the “good” old days.  You know the 1900s.  The twentieth century.  Now, if you want to try and figure this out, especially given the predatory and pernicious way that app-based companies have hired hundreds of thousands of workers and pretended they are all free as birds, you have keep your eye on California, where legislators, regulators, and the public understand how critical this issue is.

California legislators, after years of struggle with the issue, decided once and for all, that gig workers, not just with the giant predators Uber and Lyft, but across the board, were employees, not independent subcontractors.  In California, as opposed to say, Arkansas or Louisiana or most of the lower forty-right, that actually means something.  A worker has some rights.  Higher minimum wage and paid sick days are a good examples, but that’s just where it starts.  The California Labor Code is extensive and gets over the walls and into the workplace and up in a boss’s face with a long list of “do rights.”

Uber, Lyft, Door Dash, and a gazillion others want to pretend they are tech companies and simply a computerized algorithm application that is linking a customer with some Joe or Jane out in the wild blue who wants to provide a service.  Of course, they want you to overlook the fact that they interview and qualify you, insist on what age and condition your vehicle is, set the rates you can charge, and on and on.  In labor unions, we would say that they set the hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment.  The only thing they arguably don’t do is set the hours.

These companies aren’t happy with the California law.  They tried to make a deal.  They would agree to talk with their workers.  They would do a little of this and that, but, please, Mr. Golden Bear, don’t say the “e” word and make our workers officially “employees” of our companies.  The reason is clear.  Their business model is based on exploiting their workers and not paying minimum wages, social security, medical benefits, or of course any of the costs associated with the worker’s tools, meaning their car, its gas, and condition or the bicycle, scooter or whatever.  They now have raised a $100 million in hopes the voters of California will let them go back to rip-off the workers world.  That’s a long shot, if I were betting.  Californians are the France of America.  They like their benefits.  Who wouldn’t?

Listening to the radio on the road the other day, the absurdity became clear as I listened to one of the companies claim they were going to make a change in their app that would make their drivers more independent.  They were going to let them know if they picked up a fare on Uber how far they would have to go, so they could take it or pass.  My first thought was holy-moly, you mean a driver was clueless before on whether or not the fare was around the corner or miles away.  Sure enough, a driver was interviewed who talked about having landed a fare from Los Angeles to Bakersfield more than a hundred miles away.  He made money going, but then was out of luck on the way back.

A couple of tweaks are not going to change the story out there.  When you’re working for the man, you’re working for the man, whether you can see him through your app or not.  If the company controls the terms and conditions of employment, you’re an employee and entitled to the pluses or pitfalls that come with it.  Period.