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.

Major union launches campaign to organize video game and tech workers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The last two years have witnessed a wave of walkouts, petitions and other workplace actions at video game and tech companies.

But despite this swell in labor activism, employees at no major video game studios and only a handful of tech offices have formally voted to form or join a union.

A new campaign launched Tuesday by one of the nation’s largest labor unions — and spearheaded by one of the leading video game industry activists in Southern California — aims to change that.

The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE for short) is a new project of the Communications Workers of America aimed specifically at unionizing video game and tech companies.

It grew out of conversations between the CWA and Game Workers Unite, a grass-roots organization that sprang up in 2018 to push for wall-to-wall unionization of the $43-billion video game industry, alongside conversations with organizers across the larger tech industry.

Separate from the new initiative, the Toronto chapter of GWU has also signed a formal partnership agreement with CWA to work on organizing in the area. (CWA is also the parent union of the NewsGuild, which represents workers at the L.A. Times and most major newspapers in the country.)

Read the complete article here.

Pay Is Rising Fastest for Low Earners. One Reason? Minimum Wages.

From today’s New York Times:

These days, wages in the United States are doing something extraordinary: They’re growing faster at the bottom than at the top. In fact, recent growth for workers with low wages has outpaced that for high-wage workers by the widest margin in at least 20 years.

The main story here is the long economic recovery, now entering its 11th year. For much of the early phase of this recovery, wage growth for the bottom group was weaker than for others, but it began gradually accelerating in 2014 as unemployment continued to fall. This was around the same time the labor market started tapping into people some economists had all but given up on as work force participants, such asthose who had been citing health reasons or disability for not having a job.

But there has been another factor at play: the rise in state and local minimum wages.

For the last decade, the federal minimum wage has been unchanged at $7.25 an hour. But over that period, dozens of states and localities have enacted their own minimum wages or raised existing ones. As a result, the effective U.S. minimum wage is closer to $12 an hour, most likely the highest in U.S. history even after adjusting for inflation.

And with two dozen states and four dozen localities set to raise their minimums further in 2020, the effective minimum wage will keep rising this year.

These state and local actions are affecting wage data, especially for workers at the bottomTo get a sense of this impact, Ihaveused data in the Current Population Survey to look at minimum wage workers as a group and calculate the pressure their wage gains have put on aggregate wage growth over time, controlling for compositional changes in the share of minimum wage work.

Read the complete article here.

Fashion Nova’s Secret: Underpaid Workers in Los Angeles Factories

From today’s New York Times:

Fashion Nova has perfected fast fashion for the Instagram era. The mostly online retailer leans on a vast network of celebrities, influencers, and random selfie takers who post about the brand relentlessly on social media. It is built to satisfy a very online clientele, mass-producing cheap clothes that look expensive.

“They need to buy a lot of different styles and probably only wear them a couple times so their Instagram feeds can stay fresh,” Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, said in an interview last year.

To enable that habit, he gives them a constant stream of new options that are priced to sell. The days of $200 jeans are over, if you ask Mr. Saghian. Fashion Nova’s skintight denim goes for $24.99. And, he said, the company can get its clothes made “in less than two weeks,” often by manufacturers in Los Angeles, a short drive from the company’s headquarters.

That model hints at an ugly secret behind the brand’s runaway success: The federal Labor Department has found that many Fashion Nova garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages. Los Angeles is filled with factories that pay workers off the books and as little as possible, battling overseas competitors that can pay even less. Many of the people behind the sewing machines are undocumented, and unlikely to challenge their bosses.

“It has all the advantages of a sweatshop system,” said David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017.

Every year, the department investigates allegations of wage violations at sewing contractors in Los Angeles, showing up unannounced to review payroll data, interview employees and question the owners.

In investigations conducted from 2016 through this year, the department discovered Fashion Nova clothing being made in dozens of factories that owed $3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of workers, according to internal federal documents that summarized the findings and were reviewed by The New York Times.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: One Man Can Bring Equifax to Justice (and Get You Your Money)

From today’s New York Times:

On Dec. 19, District Judge Thomas Thrash of Atlanta will hold a final approval hearing for the Equifax 2017 data breach settlement. There’s a lot at stake. If the settlement is approved, the $31 million pool earmarked for claims will be paid out to some victims. Others will get free credit monitoring (because the cash reward set aside for victims was so small, if all 147 million people affected by the breach filed a claim, everyone would get just 21 cents).

There’s another option. As I wrote in a September column, victims could file a formal, legal objection, which would nullify the settlement. If Judge Thrash finds those objections convincing, Equifax’s class-action counsel wouldn’t receive their $77.5 million fee and Equifax would be liable again to face a substantial penalty for the breach. I’m happy to report quite a few people — maybe even a record number — did just that.

Over the past month Reuben Metcalfe, the founder of Class Action Inc., helped 911 individuals object (another 294 objected but did not provide signatures by the Nov. 19 deadline) by creating a chatbot tool that allowed victims to file objections automatically for the Equifax settlement at no cost (Class Action Inc. waived its 5 percent fee for Equifax). Theodore H. Frank, a lawyer who specializes in class-action suits, has jumped in the ring himself along with another victim, David Watkins. Frank’s objections, which are more formal and detailed than Metcalfe’s many automated ones, argue that the settlement is too broad and doesn’t take into account state-by-state protections for data breaches (in Utah, where Watkins lives, victims could claim damages up to $2,000).

Now it’s up to Judge Thrash to sift through the settlement and its objections and decide. Thanks to Metcalfe and Frank, he’s likely to be feeling some pressure. Back in September a class-action lawyer told me that even if only 1,000 people object, it can send a powerful message. Frank is hopeful the settlement will look weak on its own merits. “If the judge gives an honest look, he’ll realize it doesn’t meet muster,” he told me recently.

I’d argue there’s even more resting on Judge Thrash’s shoulders, including whether companies can get away with abusing our data in the future. Metcalfe, who has steeped himself in the world of class-action suits, suggested that the settlements, initially a method for accountability, have become a mechanism for companies to knowingly skirt liability for not protecting consumers. “It’s becoming cheaper to say sorry after the fact than to obey the law in the first place,” he told me.

This feels especially true in the world of data privacy, where breaches are so frequent that a discovery last week of an open database containing the personal information of 1.2 billion people hardly made news. We seem locked in a vicious cycle: Companies that gather and trade data have few checks or regulations. This allows them to collect more, which means more money. And deeper pockets make it harder to impose meaningful penalties that might deter repeat and future offenders (see: the Federal Trade Commission’s $5 billion slap on the wrist of Facebook). Judge Thrash, then, has a unique opportunity to make a statement by objecting.

Read the complete article here.

Airline catering workers plan protests at major US airports on Thanksgiving week

From today’s CNBC News Online:

Hundreds of airline catering workers are protesting this week at some of the largest U.S. airports to demand higher wages and better benefits during what’s expected to be a record Thanksgiving travel period.

Some of those workers, who prepare and deliver meals to airlines and are represented by the Unite Here labor union, are planning to block airport roads or stage sit-ins around ticket counters and pre-security areas on Tuesday at airports including those serving New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Philadelphia.

Others plan to picket and hand out pamphlets about their demands, according to the union, which represents more than 20,000 airline catering workers. Airlines for America, a trade group, expects a record 31.6 million travelers to fly on U.S. airlines during the 12 days around Thanksgiving, up nearly 4% from last year.

The protests are the latest demonstrations by emboldened workers who are demanding a bigger share of corporate profits, which have surged since the last recession more than a decade ago. Airline workers have been particularly visible this year after airlines reported disruptions they said were due to workers trying to gain leverage in contract talks. President Donald Trump signed a bill ending the longest-ever government shutdown in January, hours after a shortage of air traffic controllers disrupted flights.

Read the complete article here.

Andrew Yang claims, “Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job.” So now what?

From today’s New York Times:

During the last Democratic debate, in Ohio, there was a moment that stood out. Elizabeth Warren and I got into a debate over the impact of automation versus trade on the elimination of manufacturing jobs. Joe Biden also chimed in, agreeing that the fourth industrial revolution is costing jobs, so it’s important to deal with the root causes.

Immediately, fact checkers were quick to point to a study showing that 88 percent of factory job losses from 2000 to 2010 were caused by automation. Yet, in the days following that debate, some prominent media figures asserted that the threat of automation is not real. The Times columnist Paul Krugman even called it “a sort of escapist fantasy for centrists who don’t want to confront truly hard questions.”

It’s easy to cite incomplete statistics that ignore the full picture and the situation on the ground, but I’ve done the math while spending time in struggling communities. Venture for America, the nonprofit I founded, sent me across this country, to Detroit, St. Louis, Birmingham, Ala., and other communities, where we attempted to spur entrepreneurship and create jobs. It was during this time when I spoke with workers who had lost their jobs to automation and couldn’t find more work. My organization was helping to create jobs, but automation was displacing tens of thousands of workers in these states. We were pouring water into a bathtub with a giant hole ripped in the bottom.

On the campaign trail, I’ve spoken with workers in Michigan, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, workers who are worried about the inevitability of their jobs falling victim to automation.

Read the complete article here.

As L.A. ports automate, some workers are cheering on the robots

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Day after day, Walter Diaz, an immigrant truck driver from El Salvador, steers his 18-wheeler toward the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Will it take him half an hour to pick up his cargo? Or will it be as long as seven hours? He never knows.

Diaz is paid by the load, so he applauds the arrival of more waterfront robots, which promise to speed turnaround times at a port complex that handles about a third of the nation’s imported goods.

“I’m for automation,” Diaz says. “One hundred percent. One hundred percent.”

But what about the thousands of International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers who have mounted massive protests, saying the robots will replace human jobs? The ILWU members, who transfer cargo from ships to trucks and direct terminal traffic, “don’t care about the drivers,” said Diaz, 41, who has serviced the ports for two decades. “Never. We sit in line while they take two-hour breaks. With automation, we don’t have that problem.”

The arrival of robots at the nation’s largest marine terminal, a 484-acre facility run by Danish conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk, is exposing a stark economic divide between two sets of Southern California workers.

Read the complete article here.

For 53 million Americans stuck in low-wage jobs, the road out is hard

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Unemployment is hovering near a five-decade low, workforce participation is at the highest level in six years and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell recently called the labor market “strong.”

Yet, 44% of Americans age 18 to 64 are low-wage workers with few prospects for improving their lot, according to a Brookings Institution report.

An estimated 53 million Americans are earning low wages, according to the study. That number is more than twice the number of people in the 10 most populous U.S. cities combined, the report notes. The median wage for those workers is $10.22 an hour and their annual pay is $17,950.

Although many are benefiting from high demand for labor, the data indicated that not all new jobs are good, high-paying positions. The definition of “low-wage” differs from place to place. The authors define low-wage workers as those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage for full-time workers, adjusted for the regional cost of living. For instance, a worker would be considered low wage in Beckley, W.Va., with earnings of $12.54 an hour or less, but in San Jose, Calif., the low wage bar rises to $20.02 an hour.

“We have the largest and longest expansion and job growth in modern history,” Marcela Escobari, coauthor of the report, said in a phone interview. That expansion “is showing up in very different ways to half of the worker population that finds itself unable to move.”

Read the complete article here.

5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please

From today’s New York Times:

A German entrepreneur named Lasse Rheingans has become a subject of attention since The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a novel idea he has put in place at his 16-person technology start-up: a five-hour workday. Mr. Rheingans is not just reducing the time his employees spend in the office; he’s reducing the total time they spend working altogether. They arrive at 8 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m., at which point they’re not expected to work until the next morning.

This distinction between time in the office and time spent working is critical. In our current age of email and smartphones, work has pervaded more and more of our waking hours — evenings, mornings, weekends, vacations — rendering the idea of a fixed workday as quaint. We’re driven to these extremes by some vague sense that all of this frantic communicating will make us more productive.

Mr. Rheingans is betting that we have this wrong. His experiment is premised on the idea that once you remove time-wasting distractions and constrain inefficient conversation about your work, five hours should be sufficient to accomplish most of the core activities that actually move the needle.

To support this new approach, he has employees leave their phones in their bags at the office and blocks access to social media on the company network. Strict rules reduce time spent in meetings (most of which are now limited to 15 minutes or less). Perhaps most important, his employees now check work email only twice each day — no drawn out back-and-forth exchanges fragmenting their attention, no surreptitious inbox checks while at dinner or on the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events.

The Wall Street Journal described Mr. Rheingans’s approach as “radical.” But as someone who thinks and writes about the future of work in a high-tech age, I’ve come to believe that what’s really radical is the fact that many more organizations aren’t trying similar experiments.

Read the complete article here.