More Workers Getting Gigged

NLRB Unions

            New Orleans      Years ago our union organized a Wyndham Hotel not far from the giant New Orleans Convention Center.  We were in good shape, when we filed, having hit all the numbers with solid leadership in the departments.  There was a hiccup, when we heard back from the NLRB on scheduling the election.  When the Dallas-based lawyers for the hotel responded to the board agent, he too told them that none of the employees worked for Wyndham.  They were all subcontracted to another unnamed entity, essentially so that the company could escape liability for various taxes and potential workplace injuries.  The maneuver worked well enough for the company to get a delay and confuse the entire bargaining unit by the time they yielded to scheduling the election anyway.

That company and a herd of others seemed to have just been waiting for the Uber and DoorDash gig worker scam, where companies pretend that their workforce are not employees, but independent subcontractors accessed in various ways.  A recent column by Terri Gerstein, a former New York labor official and now head of the NYU Labor Initiative, does a good job of highlighting this virulent strain of worker exploitation, and how it is creating its own kind of behind the scene pandemic.

Gerstein climbed on the soapbox to highlight both a warning and something of a breakthrough about how the city and county of Denver have initiated an enforcement action against Instawork and Gigpro, two staffing agencies exploiting the so-called gig economy.  Denver has nailed them for one-million in penalties because they “…place workers in a range of hospitality positions, including as servers, bartenders, line and prep cooks and, yes, dishwashers. The citations assert that the companies misclassified the workers as independent contractors and, in doing so, violated the city’s minimum wage ordinance and state law on paid sick leave.”

The scam is claiming the workers are either employed by the staffing agency or are contractors.  We saw this in organizing garbage workers.  When many cities privatized their sanitation crews, companies like Waste Management and others, used temp agencies to furnish the laborers handling the business end of the garbage work with the cans on the street.  In those cases, the NLRB has a long-settled standard for treating temps as workers and allowing them to organize.  The rub there is navigating the co-employer status question that has been an issue, politically and administratively, for decades now, with recent progress under the Biden administration.

It’s clear why labor unions like ours care deeply about these issues, but as Gerstein points out, so should everyone:

Because workplace laws protect employees and not independent contractors, gig companies like Uber and Lyft save a bucket of money on both wages and taxes by avoiding the obligations that every other employer must follow: wage-related laws as well as unemployment, Social Security and Medicare taxes. As a result, gig workers can find themselves paid sub-minimum wages, for example, or left without workers’ compensation when injured or killed on the job. Another consequence is that law-abiding employers face unfair competition with businesses that don’t follow the rules, and critical safety-net programs like unemployment insurance lose badly needed funds.

No matter how long these pretend-tech companies push this problem down the road, the bills will always come due, and for the illusive savings and convenience now, it is all of us that will be called to pay the piper, when these companies are a distant memory to everyone but their founders and investors who cashed out long ago, leaving us to clean up this mess.