Why the Gig Economy Matters — Even If It’s Small
For better or worse, on-demand companies like Uber and Lyft are a catalyst for changing labor laws that were built for a different era
When I started reporting on gig workers in 2014, I was surprised to find some of the people who represented labor organizations would respond to my inquiries with mild irritation.
Why would you write about Lyft and Uber’s labor issues, they’d ask me, when there are so many sectors with bigger workforces? Lawrence Mishel, then the president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), wrote in 2015 that “dwelling on these companies too much distracts from the central features of work in America that should be prominent in the public discussion.”
And indeed, the gig economy — especially if you define the gig economy only as apps like Uber and Lyft — accounts for a small portion of the U.S. workforce. Mishel estimated in 2018 that these on-demand apps account for less than 1% of worked hours in the United States. The exact numbers are debatable, but no matter how you slice it (and, boy, have researchers sliced it differently, coming up with numbers as low as Mishel’s 1% and as high as 30% of the U.S. workforce), the gig economy receives an outsized portion of attention when it comes to labor issues.
Problems faced by Uber and Lyft drivers are shared by other types of workers, and addressing them could have a widespread impact.
But is this really a harmful distraction from the wider workforce? In my book, Gigged, I argued that the gig economy was like a Trojan horse — that problems faced by Uber and Lyft drivers are shared by other types of workers, and that addressing them could have a widespread impact.
As it happens, California’s state legislature recently passed a bill that provides a good example of this effect.
You have probably heard that the bill, AB 5, would force Uber and Lyft to reclassify their drivers from independent contractors, who have few legal rights, to employees, who are protected by minimum wage laws and are provided unemployment insurance and other benefits. But you heard…