Google revealed on Tuesday that it was phasing in a policy that will require its outside suppliers to provide health insurance, paid parental leave benefits, and a $15 minimum wage to employees working for the tech giant on a temporary or contract basis. The announcement was made in an internal memo issued to all employees and shared with the Hill:
Google will now require that the outside companies employing the workers provide them with comprehensive health care, a minimum wage of $15 per hour, 12 weeks of parental leave and a minimum of eight days of sick leave.
Google is beginning the efforts in the U.S., where there are not specific regulations around paid parental leave or comprehensive health care. Other countries in which the company operates have specific legislation around paid parental leave and other benefits. The company said it made sense to start in the U.S. because Google is setting a standard.
Google is giving the “suppliers” — companies that employ the temporary workers and contractors — until January to institute the minimum wage requirements. A Google spokesperson said it will give suppliers until 2022 to institute comprehensive health care benefits.
Google has faced increasing pressure from its “TVC” (temporary, vendor, and contractor) workers, as well as an activist community of its full-time employees, to improve the conditions under which TVCs work for the company. A day before the memo was issued, the Guardian reported on a letter signed by more than 900 Google workers calling for significant changes in the way the company deals with its contingent workforce. The letter originated from TVCs working on the global “personality team” responsible for crafting the voice for Google Assistant, most of whom had their contracts abruptly and unexpectedly shortened in early March:
In a deal reached earlier this month with one of the UK’s largest trade unions, the courier company Hermes is offering its self-employed drivers the option to obtain some of the rights enjoyed by regular employees, including a guaranteed minimum wage and holiday pay, the Guardian reported:
Under the agreement with the GMB union, Hermes’ 15,000 drivers will continue to be self-employed but can opt into contracts with better rights. The deal comes after almost 200 Hermes couriers won the right to be recognised as “workers” at an employment tribunal last summer in a case backed by the GMB. Under employment law, “workers” are guaranteed rights including holiday pay, the legal minimum wage, minimum rest breaks and protection against unlawful discrimination.
The GMB has been active in advocating for the rights of British workers in the gig economy, also backing similar labor tribunal cases against other companies operating on an independent contractor model, including Uber, which lost a landmark case in 2016. Other British unions and union federations have also supported claims regarding the rights of gig economy workers, with tribunals ruling in favor of the workers in most of these cases. The settlement reached this month means that Hermes will drop its planned appeal against the ruling last year, while the GMB will refrain from pursuing further litigation against the company.
The “worker” classification in UK employment law defines a space between employees and the self-employed, but the tests for classifying workers as such are primarily defined by case law and increasingly unclear as technological shifts have brought about changes in the way people work. The Taylor Review of modern working practices recommended in its 2017 report that the government relabel “workers” as “dependent contractors,” write a clearer definition of this category into law, and make it the default status for companies that have a self-employed workforce above a certain size. The government said last year that it would adopt most of the review’s recommendations, but did not commit to writing this “worker by default” model into law.
Yvonne Gallagher, A partner at the London-based law firm Harbottle and Lewis, commented to Personnel Today that the Hermes deal would raise some questions about these drivers’ tax and national insurance obligations:
The online polling company SurveyMonkey made headlines earlier this year when it revealed that it had begun offering “gold standard” medical, dental, and vision benefits, identical to those of its regular full-time employees, to its independent contractor workforce in January. The company was inspired to do so by its employees, many of whom pointed out in a benefits survey that while their benefits were excellent, they thought it unfair that they were unavailable to the company’s janitorial and catering staff.
Last week, Fast Company’s Eillie Anzilotti took a closer look at SurveyMonkey’s decision to equalize benefits, considering the change in the context of growing awareness of the impact this form of inequality has on the army of contractors who manage facilities for Silicon Valley tech companies and many other white-collar firms in the US. SurveyMonkey is committed to making benefits equality work, primarily as a statement of its values, Chief People Officer Becky Cantieri told Fast Company:
“We have expectations for ourselves that we use our platform to contribute positively to the industry,” Cantieri says. The prevailing independent contractor model in Silicon Valley leads to “two groups working literally side by side, who have a very similar impact on the day to day experience of working at the company, but are treated very differently,” she adds. It’s still an unusual arrangement in the tech world, so SurveyMonkey has been slow to scale it to its other offices outside of San Mateo, as they want to ensure they’ve ironed out the kinks, but they intend to do so going forward: This open enrollment season, they will bring expanded benefits to contract workers at the Portland office.
She also checks in with Managed by Q, a platform for part-time janitorial, maintenance, and clerical workers, whose founder Dan Teran decided in 2014 to classify workers on the platform as employees, not contractors, and offer them benefits including health insurance, paid leave, a 401(k) plan, and even equity. “Even though it may seem like a higher cost up front, we believed that the overall value of doing so would be higher than us just saying it’s not worth investing in our employees,” Maria Dunn, Managed by Q’s director of people, tells Anzilotti. The extra costs imposed by Teran’s decision isn’t hobbling the startup’s growth: Managed by Q has raised over $76 million so far and is turning a profit. It recently announced that it was acquiring the office space planning and project management service NVS, broadening its portfolio of services and potentially gaining new clients.
UK plumber Gary Smith has won his case against his former employer Pimlico Plumbers in the Supreme Court, which rejected the company’s contention that Smith had been self-employed and upheld his claim to basic workers’ rights like paid leave, Jo Faragher reports at Personnel Today:
Smith’s case against Pimlico Plumbers, which has been running since 2011, is the latest in a long line of legal challenges on employment status, and “is in line with a number of recent decisions relating to gig economy workers”, according to Jeremy Coy, an associate in the employment team at law firm Russell-Cooke.
He said: “The judgment of the UK’s highest court underlines the point that simply labelling workers ‘self-employed’ does not guarantee the corresponding legal status. The nature of the relationship and the degree of bargaining power and obligation between the parties is crucial in determining workers’ rights.”
Smith had prevailed in the Court of Appeal last year, but Pimlico challenged that ruling in the high court, which took up the case in February. The company considered Smith a self-employed independent contractor, and he was described as such in his agreement with Pimlico and in his tax filings. Smith did not claim to be an “employee” of the company, but rather a “worker”—a designation specific to UK law that falls between “employee” and “contractor” and entitles an individual to certain rights like a minimum wage and paid annual leave. The Court of Appeal had ruled in Smith’s favor largely on the basis that his contract with Pimlico required him to provide his services personally, such that he could not re-subcontract the work out to someone else.
In ruling for Smith, however, the Supreme Court stressed that its decision rested on the unique facts of the case and did not establish any new legal guidelines for employers to follow in determining whether they could safely classify workers as self-employed, much to the dismay of UK employers and their attorneys:
Amazon has become the latest company to draw fire from labor advocates in the UK over alleged mistreatment of independent contractors: The GMB, a general trade union representing a wide swath of the British workforce, announced on Monday that it was suing three delivery companies that contract with Amazon to fulfill orders in the UK: Prospect Commercials Limited, Box Group Limited and Lloyd Link Logistics Limited. The union alleges that delivery drivers working for these companies were incorrectly classified as self-employed, denied statutory rights as employees, compelled to work unsafely long hours, docked pay for failing to meet impossible quotas, and in some cases retaliated against after raising concerns about their conditions.
The claimants all worked for the companies as couriers, delivering parcels for Amazon. GMB say the drivers were employees, and the companies used the bogus self- employment model to wrongly deny them employment rights such as the national minimum wage and holiday pay. The drivers were required to attend scheduled shifts that were controlled by Amazon, meaning they did not have the flexibility that is integral to being self-employed. In this situation, the couriers were treated like employees in terms of their working hours, GMB Union contends they should be treated as employees in terms of their rights too.
Two of the members are also claiming that they were dismissed because of whistleblowing, saying that their roles were terminated because they raised concerns about working practices[.] … These whistleblowing claims are also being brought directly against Amazon on the basis that it was Amazon who determined the way that the drivers should work.
Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB, tells TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas that the union considers it “absolutely galling” that Amazon subjects these workers to “unrealistic targets, slogging their guts out only to have deductions made from their pay when those targets aren’t met and being told they’re self-employed without the freedom that affords.” Amazon, for its part, said in a statement to TechCrunch that the practices alleged in this lawsuit are not representative of the dozens of contractors the e-commerce giant uses to provide delivery services in the country:
Uber is rolling out new benefits for drivers working through its platform in Europe, including sick pay, paid parental and bereavement leave, and compensation for work-related injuries, the BBC reported this week:
The insurance and compensation package will be available to all Uber drivers and Uber Eats delivery couriers across Europe. However, unions have questioned whether the package is new. In April 2017, Uber announced illness and injury insurance cover for its drivers. Uber drivers who wanted to join the scheme were required to pay £2 a week. …
Uber will provide drivers with a range of insurance coverage and compensation resulting from accidents or injuries that occur while they are working, as well as protection for “major life events” that happen whether the driver is on a shift or not. … Drivers are not going to get the kind of benefits they would enjoy as employees but there will be a little something to help them deal with life’s ups and downs.
The announcement comes just a month before an appeals hearing in a London court regarding Transport for London’s decision last September to revoke Uber’s license to operate as a private car hire operator in the city, on the basis that its “approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility.” Uber has been allowed to continue operating in London while it appeals the decision, as it is scheduled to do at Westminster Magistrates Court on June 25, the BBC notes.
The battle with Transport for London is just one of several Uber is fighting in the UK and continental Europe. Last November, the company lost an appeal against a ruling by a British employment tribunal that its drivers were misclassified as independent contractors and are in fact entitled to certain rights as employees, including paid leave, overtime, and a minimum wage. Uber contends that classifying its drivers as employees would fatally disturb its business model and prevent it from offering the flexibility in terms of work hours and location that most of its drivers consider a benefit. Critics contend that this is a false choice and that Uber could maintain that flexibility while offering drivers a fuller range of rights and protections. Uber is pursuing further appeals in that case.
The freelance hiring and management platforms Fiverr and AND CO have teamed up to create a new standardized work contract for freelancers that they are calling the first of its kind to include built-in protections against sexual harassment, Ephrat Livni reported at Quartz on Wednesday:
The new contract explicitly states that harassment by clients or staff isn’t tolerated, which may seem obvious but isn’t a fundamental aspect of most freelance arrangements. The agreement also gives freelancers the right to terminate an arrangement if offending behavior continues after the client has been informed of it. A contractor who quits on these grounds must then be paid in full for the project or the month—depending on the terms of their arrangement with the client—and must receive that pay within 30 days.
Sounds decent, right? Well, it is. But it’s also not much, as the companies also admit. “We recognize this is a small step in a much longer journey, but it’s an important one,” they state.
After all, a big problem with harassment in the workplace is that it’s awkward to report in the first place, and all the more so when the perpetrator of the abuse is responsible for the paychecks. Despite the new clauses, contractors who are harassed by the clients who hired them aren’t very likely to feel comfortable demanding that abuses stop—not if they want to work for that client again. And few freelancers who are in an office on a contract basis will find it easy to complain about abusive staff with permanent positions.
These caveats highlight one of the fundamental perils of a labor market in which more workers are self-employed and fewer enjoy the protections that come with a formal employment relationship with a single organization. The #MeToo movement has sparked a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment and misconduct in US workplaces, which has sent organizations and governments scrambling to find better ways to protect workers against these crimes. Most of these laws and policies, however, focus on employees, with independent contractors getting less robust protection, if indeed they have any at all.
Writing these protections into contracts is one way to help address the abuse of freelancers; another is to enshrine them explicitly in the law.