Where is the DOL on Gig Workers?

Labor Minimum Wage

            New Orleans   Sometimes we overlook the obvious when focusing on some of the fights on the sidelines.  This thought hit me like a brick while I was reading about the efforts to win a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers in Minnesota, the latest battleground for wage justice for so-called gig workers.

These companies are national and have been involved in huge fights over proper classification of workers, as they try to run on the cheap by calling their massive workforces’ subcontractors.  California, Massachusetts, and New York City have all struggled to make these companies pay at least some kind of minimum age, but where is the US Department of Labor in all of these fights?  What happened to their historic role in fighting for minimum wages and enforcing their payment under the Fair Labor Standards Act?  Yes, these are local fights over state and municipal minimum wage ordinances, but it’s hard to escape a conclusion that with the failure of Congress to pass an increase in the federal minimum wage since 2009 under then George W. Bush’s administration, they just don’t bother anymore.

In Minnesota, the measure would guarantee drivers would be paid “at least $1.45 per mile they drive a passenger — or $1.34 per mile outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul region — as well as $0.34 per minute.”  The measure passed both houses narrowly and now goes to the governor for signature, which is not a certainty.  The companies know they don’t really have a leg to stand on, so they had proposed “a guarantee of $1.17 per mile, as well as $0.34 per minute,” which is not a world of difference, even if they are squealing like stuck pigs about the measure.  There obviously are ways to handle gig workers wages?

The real beef from the companies continues to be that they don’t want to admit that these workers are really their employees.  They don’t argue as much about paying them whether in Minnesota or New York City, as they do about having to take responsibility for them as workers, as required under the FSLA.  The DOL has numerous tests, many longs settled by the courts, to determine if a worker is a subcontractor.  The National Labor Relations Board also has many ways to sort this out.  The DOL can’t be unmindful that these classification and wage issues have been huge for years, so why have they not done their mandated job and weighed into this mess to settle the question, whether through lawsuits under the FLSA or through regulations?

Given the lack of activity on making an increase in the federal minimum wage a priority, it just seems they don’t see these questions as part of their work anymore.  Twenty-nine states, as well as territories, have now enacted minimum wages higher than the federal standard.  The other twenty-one often pretends that companies are paying more regardless, turning a blind eye to the millions making at or near $7.25 per hour.  The federal government seems to have abandoned their role here to let the states sort it out, and that’s a huge mistake.  The bill is going to come due to the federal government for all of these gig workers on healthcare and retirement because employers didn’t pay their share, so why not head the problem off at the pass?

What a shame.