As the advent of the gig economy has highlighted the precarious nature of many non-salaried workers’ incomes, predictable scheduling has practically eclipsed the minimum wage as the labor rights cause of the day, both in the US and in other countries. In the past year, we’ve seen cities like Seattle and New York pass “secure scheduling” laws mandating guaranteed hours for certain classes of hourly employees, and Oregon is on its way to becoming the first state with such legislation.
That many Americans work unpredictable hours from week to week is not in dispute, but opponents of these mandates argue that they impose unreasonable burdens on employers in industries like retail and food service where turnover is high and demand is naturally unpredictable. There is also some debate over just how big a problem variable scheduling is. A recent Gallup survey, for example, finds that among the one in six US employees who are paid hourly and say their hours vary each week, 67 percent say their variable schedules are not causing them financial hardship:
These results are based on interviews conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 4 with 528 hourly workers who say the number of hours they work each week varies. Thirty-seven percent of all hourly workers — equivalent to 18% of all U.S. workers — say the number of hours they work varies from week to week, while the rest say their hours are fixed.
In the latest case concerning the classification and rights of workers in the gig economy, the National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint against Handy Technologies, an on-demand platform for home cleaning services, arguing that its cleaners are employees of the company and not independent contractors as Handy claims, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reports:
The complaint, issued Monday by the agency’s Boston-based regional director and provided to Bloomberg by the workers’ attorney, alleges that Handy “has misclassified its cleaners as ‘independent contractors,’ while they are in fact statutory employees” who are entitled to the protections of federal labor law.
The case concerns workers who are trying to bring wage and hour class-action claims against Handy, who argue the company is violating their rights as employees by trying to force them into arbitration instead. Unless there is a settlement, it now heads to an administrative law judge, and from there could be appealed to the labor board’s presidentially appointed members, and then into federal court.
The Handy workers are represented in the case by Boston-based attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has made a name for herself as an advocate for gig economy workers in similar claims against other platforms like Uber and Lyft. “There are a lot of companies out there that are assuming they can get away with classifying their workers as independent contractors because they think everyone else is doing it,” Liss-Riordan told Bloomberg in an interview. “I would hope this complaint would give them pause.”
The NLRB complaint against Handy, which the company insists is without merit, is among the first cases the board has pursued to address the employment rights of the growing number of Americans who make a living through gig economy platforms. Last October, the NLRB accused the on-demand delivery company Postmates of violating its drivers’ rights as employees by requiring them to agree to resolve disputes through arbitration.
Amazon Mechanical Turk
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform allows individuals and organizations to outsource minute “human intelligence tasks” for very small payments, and is commonly used to fulfill the mundane task of feeding data into machine-learning algorithms. A study of US-based “Turkers” last year found that the typical user was young, well-educated, and using Mechanical Turk for work daily or regularly. Most use the platform to supplement income from other sources, though about a quarter said they earned most or all of their income there. Also, more than half of Turkers reported earning less than $5 an hour, well below the US federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Like other workers earning a precarious living in the gig economy, Turkers run a high risk of being exploited, but this highly distributed workforce has begun to fight for its rights. In a Wired’s Miranda Katz takes a look at how Turkers are pushing for changes at Amazon to protect them from being underpaid (or not paid at all):
[T]he Turker workforce has proven particularly difficult to organize: MTurk magnifies the challenges of the gig economy, with its isolated workers spread across the globe and hidden behind usernames, performing minute tasks on a platform operated by a massive, wealthy corporation. MTurk is also one of the least consumer-facing corners of the gig economy—so while ethically minded customers have taken Uber, Handy, and the like to task for their treatment of workers, Amazon’s gig-work platform has largely managed to evade public scrutiny for its low pay and reported lack of transparency. …
To all appearances, the organized labor movement in the US has fallen far from its mid-20th century heyday, but Financial Times editor and columnist Rana Foroohar believes it’s overdue for a comeback. In her Sunday column, Foroohar laments the “bad rap” unions get in the US, comparing it to the much more constructive and cooperative relationship between employers and unions in Europe and arguing that “a revitalised labour movement is exactly what the US needs right now.” However, she adds, “a new kind of labour movement may be brewing.”
By way of example, Foroohar points to the rise of the Freelancers Union, which now represents around 350,000 contractors in skilled service professions like writing and graphic design. This is not your grandfather’s union: Freelancers join voluntarily (in contrast to many industry-specific unions where membership is required to work in a particular trade), while the union is less concerned with securing its members a minimum hourly wage and more with ensuring that they are stably employed, get paid fairly and promptly for their work, and have access to benefits like health insurance and retirement savings.
The labor movement has also had some victories in pursuing more traditional unionization drives among low-wage service employees, such as last week’s vote by 500 cafeteria workers employed by a contractor to work at Facebook. Securing higher wages for support staff at large, rich companies in high-cost areas like Silicon Valley has been a major focal point of this labor movement, along with raising minimum wages and fighting on-call scheduling.
Foroohar also notes that the percentage of the American public with a positive view of unions has crept upward in recent years, with millennials tending to favor unions more than their elders. She sees this trend in public opinion as a sign that a union resurgence is in the offing, but any such resurgence will have to contend with fierce opposition from the federal and state governments. As SHRM’s Lisa Nagele-Piazza noted recently, a growing number of US states have passed right-to-work laws in recent years, which prevent unions from requiring workers to join or pay membership dues:
The UK government’s long-awaited Independent Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy, led by Matthew Taylor, a former advisor to Tony Blair who was appointed by Prime Minister Theresa May to lead the review last October, published its findings and recommendations on Tuesday. The review was initiated to deal with some of the most pressing and controversial issues in the UK’s labor market today, including the advent of the gig economy and zero-hours contracts.
In a speech announcing the launch of the review, Taylor emphasized that while the UK’s economy has done well at creating jobs, the rationale of his project is to help ensure that it creates good jobs:
Our national performance on the quantity of work is strong. But quantity alone is not enough for a thriving economy and fair society. We believe now is the time to complement that commitment to creating jobs with the goal of creating better jobs. The Review calls on the government to adopt the ambition that all work should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.
Taylor’s report identifies three key challenges employers and policy makers must address to meet this goal: Addressing worker exploitation, clarifying rules and ensuring workers know their rights, and aligning the labor market with the country’s long-term industrial strategy. The report’s key recommendations include:
Walmart’s acquisition of the e-tail startup Jet.com last summer and hiring of Jet CEO Marc Lore to run its entire e-commerce operation indicated that the retail giant was looking to make a big push into this sector and offer Amazon its first genuine competitor. Now, Walmart is piloting a program to leverage its massive brick-and-mortar infrastructure and retail staff to augment its e-commerce business by having store employees make last-mile deliveries of online orders, TechCrunch reported last week:
The idea is an expansion on the retailer’s recently launched 2-day shipping program, which lets customers order from over 2 million online items for fast delivery without an annual membership. The company said it realized those same trucks could just as easily bring any Walmart.com or Jet.com ship-to-home orders to its stores, then allow the local staff to drive the packages to customers’ homes.
The test started small. Launched in April, there are only two stores in New Jersey and one in northwest Arkansas that are running this program today. But Walmart is already touting how the early results are promising. For store employees who opt to sign up to do deliveries, it’s a way to earn extra cash – often just by expanding their commute home a bit. … A lot of technology has gone into the development of this program, hinting that this test is being seriously considered as an alternative way to handle last-mile deliveries at scale.
The company is presenting this move as part of an employee-centered approach to its e-commerce operation. At its shareholder meeting on Friday, according to Reuters, Walmart executives indicated that they were aiming to drive more online sales without alienating their employees:
US Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, both Democrats, proposed legislation on Thursday that would establish a fund to subsidize the development of portable benefits programs for the growing number of Americans making a living as independent workers in the gig economy. According to a press release from Warner’s office, the bill “establishes a $20 million grant fund within the U.S. Department of Labor to incentivize states, localities and nonprofit organizations to experiment with portable benefits models for the independent workforce”:
The Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act … authorizes a total of $20 million for competitive grants to states, local governments and nonprofits for pilot projects to design, implement and evaluate new models ($15 million) or assess and improve existing models ($5 million) for portable benefits for independent workers such as contractors, temporary workers and self-employed workers.