Many of us have benefited from the convenience of services like Uber and Instacart. But now in an economic and health crisis, their workers are highly vulnerable, and no one has their backs.
Here’s how this happened, and who is to blame. Short version: Blame everyone, including ourselves.
How we got here:
In the United States, people who drive or deliver for Uber — and for companies like Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash and more — are hired as contractors not employees. That means the companies aren’t required to provide them benefits and protections like health insurance and a minimum wage.
Some people who work for these companies like the flexibility of contract work. But the lack of health insurance, sick pay and other protections for many Americans, including Uber contractors, is stark now.
More people are skipping Uber rides altogether, leaving drivers with little income. And contractors are exposed to health risks when they do drive for Uber or go grocery shopping for Instacart.
For years, Uber and its peers delayed a reckoning about its contract work force, which numbers in the millions.
Only recently, as lawsuits and laws questioned whether Uber workers are actually conventional employees, the company and others have stepped up their push for a “third way” to give workers some flexibility of contractor life with some employee-like protections.
Uber, Lyft and other companies are also using this crisis as an opportunity. They helped persuade the U.S. government to extend unemployment benefits to freelancers. That’s good for millions of people in financial difficulty, but it also sticks American taxpayers with the bill for worker protections Uber could have provided all along.
Uber also is paying drivers and delivery couriers who can prove they’re probably sick and are ordered to isolate themselves. It’s not clear how many people are eligible for a payment or have received one.
The company also asked for a temporary legal break so it could offer some worker benefits, without those facts being used against it in court cases seeking to reclassify Uber workers as employees. That’s an understandable step to protect Uber’s business. It’s also gross.
Blame ourselves, and our government:
I started writing this pointing the finger at Uber and other companies that summon contract workers at the tap of a smartphone app. It’s not that simple, though.
We have to admit that when Uber, Instacart and Postmates rely on contractors, it benefits us as well as those companies’ bottom lines. If these companies instead hired masses of employees with benefits, the services they provide probably wouldn’t be as ubiquitous or affordable. Uber might not exist at all outside big cities.
And Uber is far from the only company relying on non-employee workers, in part because it’s cheaper to hire and fire them. That exposes the downsides of government decisions in the United States to tie many basic protections to our employer.
I’m not sure companies like Uber can continue to rely on an all-contract work force. That’s going to be a huge challenge for Uber. It’s also a problem for all of us who enjoyed cheap, handy services that leave workers exposed.