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Joshua Wood remembers days during the COVID-19 lockdown when New York City’s streets were practically empty, save for workers like him.
That experience convinced the 25-year-old Brooklynite — who makes deliveries for both Uber Eats and a package delivery service — that the gig economy needed some urgent changes.
Roughly 1 in 6 American adults have engaged in gig work for platforms such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center. But while those jobs promise flexibility and a low barrier to entry, they often pay less on an hourly basis than the prevailing minimum wage and lack basic protections such as overtime, sick pay and unemployment insurance.
“There was a sense among workers, coming off the pandemic, that something really needed to be done,” said Wood, a member of the labor group Los Deliveristas Unidos, which fights for gig worker benefits in New York City. “So much of the city is dependent on the work that we do — but if we want to make the conditions better for us, we have to be the ones to do it.”
New York City has since passed a package of legislation guaranteeing a minimum wage and other benefits for app-based food deliverers, and communities across the country are following suit. In the past five years, lawmakers in at least 10 jurisdictions — including cities such as Chicago and Seattle, and states such as Colorado, Connecticut and Minnesota — have proposed new protections for ride-share drivers and food delivery workers.
At least 10 states have also considered programs that would make it easier for gig workers to access traditional workplace benefits, such as retirement or paid family leave. Meanwhile, regulatory agencies and courts in states including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have sought to force Uber, GoPuff and other tech platforms to grant their drivers the same benefits as regular employees.
The push comes amid a resurgent workers’ rights movement in the United States and a global reconsideration of labor rights in the age of the gig economy. Since the start of the summer, both Australia and the European Union moved to strengthen workplace protections for gig workers, while the U.S. Department of Labor is expected to finalize a new rule that may reclassify some gig workers as employees as soon as October.
But gig companies fiercely oppose any effort to reclassify gig workers, a change that would grant the workers new rights and protections under state and federal law. In public statements, legal filings and elaborate marketing campaigns, gig platforms have argued that any significant shake-up to their current labor arrangement would jeopardize workers’ flexibility and independence — as well as raise consumer costs.
In a statement, Uber spokesperson Alix Anfang told Stateline the company “supports comprehensive legislation that protects the flexibility drivers tell us they want while providing important benefits and protections.”
“They don’t want to pay drivers,” said James Parrott, an economist at The New School whose analyses of driver wages informed New York’s new pay standard. “But their pockets are infinitely deep when it comes to fighting regulations they disagree with.”
Pandemic spurred organizing
Gig work comes with an unusual level of precarity, said Daniel Ocampo, a legal fellow at the National Employment Law Project. Workers generally have no job security, no traditional benefits, no consistent income and little opportunity to organize or advocate for themselves.
But that last part is changing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ocampo said. Spurred by falling wages and growing safety concerns, new advocacy organizations have sprung up in cities from New York to Los Angeles to push for laws that establish minimum wages and mandate paid sick leave, among other protections.
“There’s been a real wave of legislative action, especially in the last year,” Ocampo said. “It’s a very difficult group of workers to organize … but people are fed up with the conditions.”
In addition to New York City — which approved a minimum wage for ride-share drivers in 2018, and for food deliverers in 2021 — gig workers have also notched a string of significant victories in Seattle. The city unanimously passed a minimum pay floor for ride-share drivers in 2020 and app-based delivery workers in 2022. Earlier this year, Seattle mandated paid sick leave and due process procedures for a broader swath of gig workers if they are suspended from the apps.
Lawmakers in Chicago also expect to pass a minimum wage ordinance for ride-share drivers in the coming months, said city Alderman Michael Rodriguez, a Democrat who introduced the bill with 25 co-sponsors. As of 2021, Uber and Lyft drivers in the city earned an average hourly wage of $12.72 after expenses, according to an analysis of 22 million trips by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute.
“Many of these workers have had issues with their pay and with deactivation,” Rodriguez said. “We’re working to get new protections for the people toiling day in and day to provide rides in a city that desperately needs better transportation.”
Stateline, founded in 1998, provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.
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