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The gig economy and worker safety

Uncertainties surround the growing employment trend


Many descriptions of the gig economy add the modifier “so-called.” The word “ambiguous” is frequently used as well.

That’s because many types of on-demand project work exist and can be coordinated through multiple entities – employers, employment agencies and digital platforms.

“I think when you get to this so-called gig economy, it’s very confusing,” NIOSH Director John Howard said.

Charlotte Garden, an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law who specializes in labor law, agrees.

“There’s no single definition of the gig economy, which people often use as a shorthand for piecework – work paid by the job rather than by the hour or year,” Garden told Safety+Health. “Gig work can be facilitated both offline and online, though that phrase is sometimes used to refer especially to work that people get by logging onto an app. Even within the app-based economy, there is much variation. For example, the experience of working for (ride-hailing services) Lyft or Uber is a bit different than setting up a store on (e-commerce websites) Etsy or Ebay.”

In May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics collected data on the growing pool of gig workers as part of a Population Survey supplement. (At press time, a BLS economist told S+H that such results typically are not released until at least six months after the survey, and the agency did not expect to issue the data before early 2018.)

The most recent BLS data available, released in February 2005, shows that contingent workers – recognized as “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who reported that their jobs are temporary” – made up 1.8 to 4.1 percent of all employment. A BLS survey also found that independent contractors accounted for 7.4 percent of total employment, ranking it the most popular alternative employment arrangement.

A 2016 study from the Washington-based Pew Research Center shows that 8 percent of American adults earned money from online gig work in 2015, with 29 percent of those reporting the funds were essential to meeting basic needs. That same year, the Freelancers Union and freelancing website Upwork estimated that 55 million Americans complete some type of freelance work annually.

“We mustn’t lump all sorts of gig workers into one category. There are people with full-time standard jobs … that do gig work on the side,” Howard said. “There are gig workers who supplement their income with gig work, and then there are gig workers whose gig work is the sole source of their income. The safety and health risks may be different. But even the full-time standard worker who’s doing gig work on the side is not covered by their employer for doing that work because that work is not for their full-time employer.”

Pros and cons

Chris Graham drove part-time for a ride-sharing service for a year in Milwaukee to earn supplemental income. Although friends who worked for insurance companies cautioned him against the practice, Graham felt the pros outweighed any potential cons in the form of lost worker protections and benefits.

“For my schedule and for what I wanted to do for a second job, I’m just like, ‘This, to me, works. I can set my own hours, I can start when I want to, end when I want to, don’t have to worry about taking off, don’t have to worry about switching shifts,’” Graham said. “It was easy for me, but … I knew that I was accepting some extra responsibility and some extra hassles or costs to myself.”

Worker safety considerations

Many gig economy jobs are “very dangerous,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA advisor and currently a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based employment rights advocacy organization. Bicycle messengers and transportation network workers, for example, carry high fatality and injury rates, Berkowitz said.

When some organizations compound this by classifying gig workers as independent contractors, “a lot of the worker safety is falling through the cracks,” Berkowitz said. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, independent contractors are responsible for their own occupational safety and health. Unlike employees, they do not have rights to benefits such as workers’ compensation and a minimum wage.

“We believe that the use of an app to dispatch workers – or drivers – does not fundamentally change the nature of employment, and the workers are in fact employees entitled to coverage under workplace laws,” Berkowitz said. “A lot of it’s a question of who’s an employee and who’s a true independent contractor.”

Unique Seattle ordinance

In Seattle, both taxicab and app-based drivers are considered independent contractors and therefore are not classified as employees. In 2015, the Seattle City Council adopted a first-of-its-kind ordinance that would give independent contractors the right to collectively bargain with their companies. It since has encountered a handful of challenges in court.

Alarmed by what he called an ongoing “erosion of worker protections,” City Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced the ordinance, saying the City Council wants to “make sure that people aren’t driving more hours than is safe” and that vehicles are inspected. He offered a potential scenario in which a ride-hailing company might lower its rates as part of a promotion, affecting the driver’s earnings and creating an additional financial burden on vehicle upkeep.

“These folks doing this work should have the ability to earn a fair living for a fair number of hours and not have to compromise public safety to do that,” O’Brien said.

Garden said the presence of collective bargaining – and its tendency to raise wages – ultimately could increase worker safety.

“First, drivers might be able to drive less in order to make ends meet, allowing them to get more rest. (As it is, companies … sometimes talk as though there is no cost to drivers spending more time behind the wheel),” she wrote. “Second, drivers might remain driving for longer, and become safer over time (e.g., because they learn the city they drive in better).”

Even if drivers elect not to unionize, Garden said the mere possibility of unionization could prompt employers to independently improve working conditions.

Speaking June 28 as part of a NIOSH Total Worker Health webinar addressing nonstandard work arrangements, Sherry Baron, professor of occupational and environmental health at City University of New York, argued that too much fluidity could impact worker health.

“(For) many people in flexible jobs, flexibility turns into the workers’ need to overwork themselves,” Baron said. “I think flexibility has to be used cautiously.”

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