Pandemic Erodes Gig Economy Work

From today’s New York Times:

It was just after 11 a.m. last Wednesday when Jaime Maldonado, 51, pulled his rented Nissan into a lot outside San Francisco International Airport. He figured he had a long wait ahead — about two hours — before Lyft would ping him to pick up a passenger.

Occasionally, jets roared overhead — but not many, which meant not enough passengers for Mr. Maldonado, who said that before the coronavirus outbreak, he spent just 20 to 40 minutes waiting outside the airport for customers. To kill time, he got out of his car, looping the mask he recently started wearing around his wrist, and went to talk to other drivers.

As the minutes ticked by, Mr. Maldonado wondered out loud, “What am I going to do to pump gas and feed my kids tomorrow?” His number of rides in a typical week had dropped to around 50 from 100 earlier in the month, he said, and his payout had plunged by half to about $600 a week, from which Lyft would subtract the rental fee for his car.

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the fragile situations of gig economy workers — the Uber and Lyft drivers, food-delivery couriers and TaskRabbit furniture builders who are behind the convenience-as-a-service apps that are now part of everyday life. Classified as freelancers and not full-time employees, these workers have few protections like guaranteed wages, sick pay and health care, which are benefits that are critical in a crisis.

While gig economy companies like Uber and DoorDash have promoted themselves as providing flexible work that can be lifelines to workers during economic downturns, interviews with 20 ride-hailing drivers and food delivery couriers in Europe and the United States over the past week showed that the services have been anything but that.

Instead, as the fallout from the coronavirus spreads, gig workers’ earnings have plummeted and many have become disgruntled about their lack of health care. Many others are also feeling economic pain from the outbreak — layoffs have hit workers in retailing, airlines, hotels, restaurants and gyms — but even as public health agencies have recommended social isolation to insulate people from the virus, gig workers must continue interacting with others to pay their bills.

Read the complete article here.

The Great Google Revolt

From today’s New York Times:

Laurence Berland had just gotten out of the subway in New York, some 3,000 miles from his desk in San Francisco, when he learned that Google had fired him. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the news came to him, bad-breakup-style, via email. “Following a thorough investigation, the company has found that you committed several acts in violation of Google’s policies,” the note said. It did not elaborate on what he had done to violate these policies.

Berland, an engineer who had spent more than a decade at the company, had reason to expect he might be fired. He had been suspended a few weeks earlier after subscribing to the open calendars of several senior Google employees, whom he suspected of meeting with outside consultants to suppress organizing activity at the company. During a subsequent meeting at which he was questioned by Google investigators, he had the feeling that they were pressuring him to say something that could be grounds for termination. Then, the Friday before he was fired, he had spoken at a well-publicized rally of his co-workers outside Google’s San Francisco offices, accusing the company of silencing dissent.

Even so, the timing and manner of his dismissal surprised him. “I thought they’d do it when all the media attention died down,” he said. “When the suspensions and the rally were no longer on people’s minds.” Instead, at a moment when the spotlight was shining brightly, Google had escalated — as if to make a point.

Berland was one of at least four employees Google fired that day. All four were locked in an ongoing conflict with the company, as they and other activists had stepped forward to denounce both its treatment of workers and its relationship with certain customers, like U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Berland’s terminated colleagues were even more shocked by the turn of events than he was. Rebecca Rivers, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colo., was dismissed over the phone after accessing internal documents. Rivers had only recently come out as transgender and was pursuing a medical transition. “I came out at Google expecting to stay at Google through the entire transition,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think about going to a job interview, because I’m so scared of how other companies treat trans employees.”

Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, the two other Googlers fired that day, had not received so much as a warning, much less a suspension. Though they had been questioned by corporate security two months earlier about whether they had circulated documents referring to Customs and Border Protection contracts, they had been allowed to continue their work without incident. Waldman, a software developer in Cambridge, Mass., said she was given a 15-minute notice before she was summoned to the meeting where she was fired; Duke, an engineer in New York, said an invitation appeared on his calendar precisely one minute beforehand. Security officials escorted him out of the building without letting him return to his desk. “I had to describe to them what my jacket, scarf and bag looked like,” he said.

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Kickstarter Employees Vote to Unionize in a Big Step for Tech Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Employees at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted on Tuesday to unionize, the first well-known technology company to take the step toward being represented by organized labor.

The decision, which was formalized by a vote count at the National Labor Relations Board, came down to a narrow margin, with 46 employees voting in favor of the move and 37 opposing it. The debate over a union — and whether such representation was appropriate for highly paid tech workers — had been a source of tension at the company for many months.

“I’m overjoyed by this result,” said Dannel Jurado, a Kickstarter senior software engineer who voted for a union. “There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s a first step to the sustainable future in tech that I and so many others want to see.”

The pro-union vote is significant for the technology industry, where workers have become increasingly activist in recent years over issues as varied as sexual harassment and climate change. Behemoth companies such as Google and Amazon have struggled to get a handle on their employees, who have staged walkouts and demanded that their companies not work with government entities and others.

But large-scale unionization efforts have faltered. Only a group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized last year, and a small group of Instacart workers managed to do so this month. In the past, most unionization drives have been associated with blue-collar workers and lower-paid white-collar workers rather than white-collar tech workers, who are often paid upward of $150,000 a year.

Veena Dubal, an associate professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, called the Kickstarter vote “a hugely important step” that “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.”

Read the complete article here.

DoorDash’s anti-worker tactics just backfired spectacularly in court

From today’s Vox News Online:

The food delivery company DoorDash made its delivery workers sign away their right to sue if a legal dispute arises between a worker and the company. Instead, disputes would be resolved by a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor corporate parties.

It’s a common tactic, often used by companies seeking to discourage workers from asserting their legal rights at all. And, if a decision handed down Monday by a federal district judge stands, the tactic backfired spectacularly for DoorDash.

Under Judge William Alsup’s order in Abernathy v. DoorDash, DoorDash must arbitrate over 5,000 individual disputes with various workers who claim that they were misclassified as independent contractors, when they should be treated as employees. It also must pay a $1,900 fee for each of these individual arbitration proceedings.

Though DoorDash might settle the various claims before it is hit with these fees, Alsup’s order means that if it doesn’t, the delivery company will face a bill of nearly $10 million before any of the individual proceedings are even resolved. Add in the cost of paying for lawyers to represent them in each proceeding, plus the amount the company will have to pay to the workers in each proceeding that it loses, and DoorDash is likely to wind up paying far more money than it would have if it hadn’t tried to strip away many of its workers’ rights.

Ordinarily, when thousands of workers at the same company all raise very similar legal claims against that same employer, those workers will join together in a class action lawsuit — a process that allows all of the disputes to be resolved in a single suit rather than in thousands of separate proceedings. But DoorDash required these delivery workers to sign away their right to bring a class action as well.

That decision also appears to have backfired.

Read the complete article here.

New York Governor Lays Down Ultimatum on Gig Worker Rights

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) kicked gig worker rights out of the state’s budget discussion, instead creating a task force to study the issue. But he also provided lawmakers with an ultimatum.

If the issue isn’t resolved by May 1, the state’s labor department will be authorized to enact regulations protecting workers, Cuomo announced Jan. 21 as part of his executive budget proposal.

Policy is often negotiated alongside fiscal plans in the state’s budget process, which is kicked off by the governor. The state budget is due by March 31, before the next fiscal year begins.

One political expert says creating a task force is a way to delay a difficult decision that puts the governor between the state’s powerful unions and popular companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.

Some Albany insiders, companies, and lobbyists say the governor’s legislative proposal is vague. Several lawmakers and union leaders, however, are applauding Cuomo’s plan to further study whether many workers currently operating as independent contractors should instead be classified as employees, entitling them to benefits such as minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, and the right to collectively bargain.

“We certainly are in a better place now, than we were at the end of last session,” New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in an emailed statement. “In addition to creating a task force, the legislation would establish a framework to provide rights and protections to workers in the growing gig economy.”

Companies and business coalitions said they’re glad to have a seat at the table. “No matter the forum, we are ready to discuss solutions that provide workers with the protections they deserve while maintaining the flexibility they want and the economic growth vital to the state,” said Christina Fisher, a spokeswoman for Flexible Work for New York, a coalition of app-based technology companies, business groups, and civic organizations.

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.