The Gig Economy Is Coming for Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

A few years ago, Adalberto Martín began to see some troubling changes at work. As a veteran member of the room service staff at Marriott’s W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, he was an expert in delivering carefully assembled trays of food and drink to hungry guests. But the number of orders had sharply decreased. What was once 50 glasses of orange juice every morning had dwindled to 10, and Mr. Martín’s tip income fell accordingly. At lunchtime, he seemed to make more deliveries of plates and silverware than actual food.

Room service, as we imagine it in the movies, with white tablecloths and silver cloches, has long been in decline, even at the fanciest hotels. But Mr. Martín attributes his loss of earnings to the proliferation of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates, successors of online ordering services like Seamless. Now he wonders if soon he’ll be out of a job altogether. “We’re always worrying and concerned when we see other hotels nearby closing room service,” Mr. Martín told me. “It’s just a matter of time.”

His co-workers at the W and staff members at other hotels report similar trends: The doormen and bellmen who once summoned cabs for guests, and were tipped in return, now watch lines of Ubers and Lyfts coil in front of the lobby doors, while concierges have had their work outsourced to iPad consoles. Some hotels offer tablets in every room preloaded with food-delivery apps, and give guests vouchers for Uber and Lyft rides. In the microcosm of the hotel, the app economy has expanded choices for some (the guests) and shrunk options for others (the workers).

These currents in hospitality represent a subtle, sneaky form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy. They’re not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but rather smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” (a portmanteau of “co-worker” and “robot”) chipping away at the careers of full-time and in some cases unionized employees.

In the beginning of the gig economy, people most feared one-to-one job loss: An Uber driver comes in, a taxi driver goes out. And taxi drivers have indeed lost their livelihoods — and taken their own lives. Yet many app workers are only part-time, driving or TaskRabbit-ing to supplement their wages in a traditional job. App companies, for their part, deny that even full-timers are employees, perpetuating the fantasy that gig workers are solo entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that reduces everything to a series of app-enabled transactions, and calls it work, leaving what’s left of the welfare state to fill in the rest.

Aaron Benanav, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, explains that this process of “de-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is being used to replace skilled workers with less skilled, or continuing a process that’s happening all over the world of ‘disguised employment,’ where you bring in independent contractors to replace employees,” he said. “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees.

Read the complete article here.