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COMMENTARY | The coronavirus has exposed the problematic nature of the gig economy on workers’ pay and benefits.
A week before all non-essential businesses closed in New York, I was at the gym talking to my trainer, Lucy, about the coronavirus pandemic and the changes we were making to daily life.
Lucy mentioned that if her customers cancel their appointments, she won’t get paid since her pay is based on each session that she works. It turns out that she and several others on the training staff are designated as “zero-hour” contract workers, meaning their employer doesn’t guarantee them a minimum number of working hours. In other words, no fixed salary, no benefits and no pay when there are cancellations.
Lucy and her husband, who also works at the gym, have three children. What will happen to them now that her gym has closed indefinitely?
Lucy and her husband aren’t the only ones facing this startling question. Both private companies and non-profits have sought to shed costs by cutting their work force and relying more on temps, consultants and “zero-hour” contract workers. Although full-time gig jobs sourced through apps like Uber and TaskRabbit, represent a small portion of the workforce, some skilled professions like accountants, marketing consultants, writers, programmers, graphic designers, on-call nurses and adjunct professors are moving to more independent contract work.
The coronavirus is quickly highlighting the many shortcomings of gig work. While workers are free to set their own schedule, it also means they are woefully underemployed, uninsured and dependent on gigs in sickness or in health. I think about how Lucy and the millions of others who don’t have the luxury of working from home or receive paid sick leave. How will they make ends meets when they don’t have a guaranteed safety net from their employers? And how is the pandemic already further exacerbating existing issues around income disparity, access to health care and debt payments?
Recent federal actions offer some important first steps but fail to enshrine some of these crucial provisions into the law permanently. The stimulus package signed into law by President Trump on Friday allows gig workers to apply for unemployment under a “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” program. During this crisis, they would also be eligible for supplemental weekly payments of $600 that the federal government intends to make, as well as a payout of $1,200 for any American who makes less than $75,000.
Similarly, a prior coronavirus relief bill has some welcome emergency initiatives like paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, food assistance and free coronavirus testing. But it doesn’t mandate that large businesses offer paid sick leave, and businesses under 50 employees can apply for a hardship exemption. That means some 19.3 million workers could be left out of the paid sick leave provision. While gig workers are eligible for the two weeks paid leave and up to 12 weeks paid family leave to care for their children out of school, these workers will have to apply to the IRS for a tax credit, meaning they will get the money at a later date, not now.
Not to mention, these measures do not address several other critical areas like student debt relief, suspension of rent and mortgage payments, eviction moratoriums, utility shut-offs and job and income loss protections.
But the larger problem is that these “benefits” are limited to this specific crisis. Why do we not guarantee sick leave and access to necessary medical care permanently for all workers?
These emergency measures must live beyond the current crisis and become a staple for all workers. My organization, United Methodist Women, has launched the nationwide Living Wage for All Campaign to ensure all families can earn a living wage and meet their basic needs. We support state and local legislation that ensures employers recognize their gig workers as employees and pay them a minimum wage of at least $15 and provide benefits. Additionally, we support the FAMILY Act that, if passed, would provide universal, portable paid sick and medical leave to all workers. These are the types of meaningful action that considers workers needs first and helps address income inequality.
This is a moment that lays bare the gaping economic inequality in our nation. But from this moment, we should seek to build a permanent, equitable economy that puts the health and wellbeing of workers like Lucy first.
Carol Barton is the lead for the Living Wage for All Campaign at United Methodist Women.