What the 'gig economy' means for worker protections

By Brian Bent
SFM Vice President, Director of Underwriting

You may know you can use your smartphone to hail a ride to the airport. But did you know you can also use an app to find someone to come fix your car, clean your house or even cook you dinner?

These roving drivers, mechanics, housecleaners and cooks are part of what’s referred to as the “gig economy.” Technology allows them to connect with customers directly, which means they can work independently on a job-by-job basis, rather than through an employer.

This fast-growing work arrangement creates new questions about state laws regarding employer/employee relationships, and who will bear the burden of the cost if a gig worker is hurt on the job.

‘Gig economy’ growing fast

A survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board showed that 36 percent of American adults engaged in some kind of “informal paid work activity” either as a primary or supplemental income source.

From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of American workers engaged in alternative work arrangements, including temporary, independent, contract or freelance work, rose from 10.7 percent to 15.8 percent according to the National Bureau of Economic Research .

Some workers choose this kind of arrangement for the freedom and flexibility. Others just need the extra money, or do it reluctantly because it’s the only type of work they can find.

Digital platforms account for some of the growth, but a larger portion is due to companies increasingly opting to hire workers as contractors rather than permanent employees, according to a 2016 study by Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger .

Arrangement creates a gap in worker protection

Many of the laws and benefits established to protect workers, including workers’ compensation, are contingent on an employer/employee relationship.

This means gig economy workers might not have those protections unless they choose to purchase them at their own expense. For example, a driver considered an employee of a commercial delivery company is entitled to employer-paid workers’ compensation coverage by law, but a ride-hailing app driver is not in most states. So, if the delivery driver gets in an accident on the job, the medical costs and lost wages would be covered. Ride-hailing drivers would have no such protection, unless they had previously purchased their own coverage.

As our economy and approach to work evolves, it’s important that our laws keep up so we maintain established worker protections.

The gap goes beyond workers’ compensation — medical benefits, retirement benefits and unemployment insurance are all often contingent upon being legally defined as an employee.

Public and private sectors looking at ways to close the gap

Lawmakers, agencies and the companies that run digital platforms are starting to look at ways gig workers can receive the same protections as traditional employees.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made it a priority to address fair employment practices in the gig economy, according to national employment law firm Littler .

A U.S. Senate committee held a hearing this year on providing retirement benefits for independent workers.

Some state and federal lawmakers have made proposals to provide portable benefits workers could keep while moving from job to job. The State of New York already has a requirement that ride-sharing platforms Uber and Lyft cover workers’ compensation for their drivers.

Uber is piloting a program in other states to provide some medical and wage-replacement benefits to drivers who are injured on the job. It’s a voluntary program
paid for by the drivers, and the benefits are more limited than those provided by workers’ compensation law.

It doesn’t seem there’s any clear, universal solution in sight yet to these lacking worker protections, but it’s encouraging to see that lawmakers and large companies recognize the problem and are trying to find ways to fix it.

As our economy and approach to work evolves, it’s important that our laws keep up so we maintain established worker protections.

In the meantime, if you use the services of those in the gig economy, it’s important to understand your employment relationship and do what you can to protect yourself from liability.

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