Opinion

To stop shameful exploitation of ‘gig economy’ workers, let’s start with this bill

From children working in coal mines to women locked inside dangerous factories to migrant farmworkers laboring under inhumane conditions, American history is full of shameful examples where powerful industries exploited workers in pursuit of greater profits.

Their methods have changed over the years, but companies’ drive to cut costs and boost profits at the expense of workers’ wellbeing has not.

In many industries today, it takes the form of worker misclassification.

Misclassification works like this: Companies label their workers as “independent contractors” rather than full-fledged employees, allowing employers to deny workers basic protections like the right to organize, wage and hour laws, health care coverage and protections against sexual harassment.

This exploitative business practice has proliferated in industries like trucking and construction for decades, but the advent of the “gig economy” has accelerated the practice and extended it more widely.

Opinion

These “gig” industries — think ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft and food delivery apps like Postmates and Doordash — tapped new technologies to meet new consumer demands, but they did it, in large part, by taking advantage of worker classification laws.

Their innovations are packaged with all the polish and gloss of the internet economy, but they fit right into a corporate tradition going back more than a century, in which big, powerful entities exploit labor laws to boost their bottom lines – never mind the consequences for the workers actually doing the work.

Elizabeth Warren copy.jpg
Sen. Elizabeth Warren

I believe in markets and in providing entrepreneurs the chance to succeed. But markets without rules and workplaces without labor protections are ripe for exploitation.

That’s why I was pleased when the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year that companies must use a simple test used by many other states to determine if a worker is truly an independent contractor instead of an employee.

Now there is a legislative effort underway to enshrine the ruling into state law – Assembly Bill 5 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.

Like the court’s decision, AB 5 is effective because it is straightforward and simple: It makes full “employee” status the default under state law, which will automatically protect millions of workers. The experience of other states – including my home state of Massachusetts where a similar law has been in effect for many years – shows that a comprehensive approach is most effective.

The test is flexible enough that there is no need for an extensive array of exclusions. Working within the framework of the test, doctors or hair stylists or lawyers can set up their businesses to preserve the use of independent contractor status. Carving up the statute with scores of exclusions only serves to weaken protections for millions of workers who need it.

But some of the most powerful gig companies have brought in armies of lawyers, lobbyists and consultants to spread disinformation and either kill the bill or water it down so it doesn’t give workers the rights and benefits they deserve. These companies’ approach would do little but sow confusion and uncertainty by adding other, still undefined, classes of workers whose rights are unclear – and perhaps unenforceable.

This is a crucial moment in the fight for workers in this country. It’s a time for us to show whose side we’re on. All Democrats need to stand up and say, without hedging, that we support AB 5 and back full employee status for gig workers.

I’m fighting for an America where everybody – even the biggest, richest and most well-connected companies – plays by the rules. Passing AB 5 gets us closer to that ideal.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a Democratic candidate for president.
Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments