Soapbox

Sharing right to organize with gig economy workers

Lyft cars line up in a parking lot at the Waterfront in Homestead, Pa., to prepare to parade around town in a showing of solidarity after the PUC ordered the ride share service to cease-and-desist their services.
Lyft cars line up in a parking lot at the Waterfront in Homestead, Pa., to prepare to parade around town in a showing of solidarity after the PUC ordered the ride share service to cease-and-desist their services. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette file

Our economy is changing. We call it different things: the sharing economy, the gig economy, the new economy. But, it’s clear that we are entering a new era of work and our old paradigms of labor laws that neatly addressed employee-employer relationships might not necessarily fit with what we’re seeing.

We often think of Uber or Lyft when we think of this new economy, but this sector is exploding and now there are apps for nearly any job, like TaskRabbit or Handy. You can hire a maid, a plumber, even a lawyer, with a touch.

However, with convenience and innovation comes the stark reality of a workforce with unclear protections. These “independent contractors” have no minimum wage, no workers’ compensation if they are hurt at work, no retirement or Social Security, and no health care.

And as labor lawyer Rich McCracken – an adviser to my review of this effort – has concluded, current law doesn’t allow these workers the right to organize themselves and collectively bargain for even the most basic safeguards, unless a state proactively provides them a legal framework. I think we can do that in California.

I’m introducing the California 1099 Self-Organizing Act because it’s our responsibility as legislators to forge a way for workers to keep up with innovation. The expanding gig economy presents exciting opportunities and flexibility. But in too many cases these workers have so few protections or benefits that we are approaching a tipping point where California will have to either regulate or expand our social safety net to pick up the slack for these companies.

There are ongoing legal fights concerning the misclassification of some of these workers. Many argue, and I agree, that some of these workers are employees and should be treated as employees. This is a fight we have waged industry by industry for years, insisting through legal action and legislation that truck drivers, roofers, home health care workers, even professional cheerleaders must be treated as employees. But we must continue this critical fight by preparing for a workforce of independent contractors, freelancers and temps.

Millennials on the cutting edge of the new economic reality understand how vulnerable these workers are. In recent polling, 77 percent said they’d vote for a ballot measure addressing the issue. That would be a last resort. We should try the legislative process first to establish a framework so these workers can organize and collectively bargain with the companies that are setting all the rules, utilizing their drive, and profiting from their labor.

Our economy is leaving more and more people behind. They barely make ends meet and are unable to prepare for retirement. Employee protections help alleviate these disparities.

Our economy is leaving more and more people behind. They barely make ends meet and are unable to prepare for retirement. Employee protections help alleviate these disparities. But what about the workers who aren’t protected by basic standards, such as access to sick leave and minimum wage requirements, much less Social Security, workers’ compensation, or unemployment insurance, because the law does not consider them employees? We risk having millions of workers turning to the taxpayer-funded safety net.

It’s estimated that 2 million Californians are part of the gig economy, with the number growing every year. They deserve the right to form associations and engage in collective bargaining to have a voice in their workplace. The California 1099 Self-Organizing Act will provide that legally, and will ensure that California remains at the forefront of innovation that brings working people along for the ride instead of leaving them behind.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, is a former labor leader who chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Women in the Workplace.

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