Op-Ed: Is the Coronavirus Shaping the Future of How We Work?

From today’s New York Times:

Both the irony and the symbolism were evident as members of the California Future of Work Commission gathered in a virtual meeting, hastily rescheduled in the midst of an unfolding crisis.

The pandemic, and the recession all but certain to follow, threaten to pre-empt and overwhelm efforts to shape the future of work, and thus the future of California — how to create good jobs, reduce poverty and redefine relationships and structures to narrow the enormous income inequality that overshadows the state’s wealth and success.

Thus the recent meeting became not only an experiment for doing business in a post-coronavirus world but also a conversation laden with doubts, fears and aspirations about how the future may evolve.

The coronavirus will have a silver lining if it serves as the impetus for constructive upheaval, in the way that the sudden forced reliance on telecommunication is already having an impact.

“We are conducting a natural experiment,” said Peter Schwartz, a futurist and member of the commission. “One we would prefer not to have conducted. But we’re going to learn the hard way, rather quickly and by necessity, everything that can be done remotely. … We’re not going back to zero afterward. What do we learn out of all this in terms of how our society can change?”

World War II, the last international crisis that upended life in California, transformed the state into a military center and ushered in decades of growth that reshaped the Golden State. There is already a sense that in a different way, the coronavirus may create an inflection point of comparable significance. For better or worse, whenever the epidemic subsides, there will be no going back.

Read the complete article here.

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.

In major ruling, San Diego judge says Instacart will flunk AB 5 contractor test

From today’s San Diego Union-Tribune:

A San Diego Superior Court judge has ruled that Instacart is likely misclassifying some of its workers as contractors — when the law requires they be classified as employees — marking a notable step toward enforcement of the controversial new state law known as AB 5.

But the ruling came with a healthy dose of skepticism from the judge over the “wisdom” of the law itself.

Judge Timothy Taylor issued an injunction Feb. 18 against Instacart in San Diego Superior Court, essentially warning the San Francisco company that it’s failing to comply with the state’s labor laws. Instacart disagrees with the ruling, and plans to file an appeal, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Instacart, which operates nationally and has a presence in San Diego, is an app that allows customers to place grocery orders online, which are then purchased and delivered by gig workers called “shoppers.” The labor law case, filed by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott in September, takes issue with how the grocery delivery company classifies its shoppers.

The suit alleges that Instacart shoppers do not qualify as independent contractors under a 2018 California Supreme Court decision (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court). It’s the Dynamex case that spurred Assembly Bill 5 to move its way through the state legislature last year, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

According to Judge Taylor, the law makes it clear that Instacart is in violation, calling California state policy “unapologetically pro-employee.”

“While there is room for debate on the wisdom of this policy, and while other states have chosen another course, it is noteworthy that all three branches of California have now spoken on this issue,” Taylor wrote in a court filing dated Feb. 18. “The Supreme Court announced Dynamex two years ago. The decision gave rise to a long debate in the legal press and in the Legislature. The Legislature passed AB 5 last fall. The Governor signed it. To put it in the vernacular, the handwriting is on the wall.”

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.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Data Privacy: What Californians can do about creepy data collection in 2020

From today’s The Mercury News:

Starting New Year’s Day, Californians creeped out by the trove of personal data companies collect on their online shopping, searching and social media habits will get sweeping new privacy rights that will let them opt out of having their information sold or shared and let them demand that it be deleted.

“This is really a watershed moment for consumers,” said Scott W. Pink, a Menlo Park lawyer who advises companies on cybersecurity and privacy. “It’s the first law in the United States outside specialized industries like health care that provides consumers some degree of control and access over data collected on them.”

The California Consumer Privacy Act approved in June 2018 was inspired by public outrage over data breaches at major companies such as Facebook, Yahoo and Equifax that exposed consumers to potential fraud and misuse of their personal information, and by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The new law requires that businesses disclose their data gathering and sharing practices and allows consumers to opt out of it and to demand that businesses delete collected information on them. It prohibits companies from penalizing consumers with higher rates or fewer services for exercising their privacy rights and from selling information about children under age 16 without their explicit consent.

But questions continue to swirl as companies scramble to comply. The state attorney general is still finalizing proposed regulations intended to guide consumers and businesses in order to meet a July deadline when enforcement is expected to begin.

And both consumer and business advocates continue to spar over whether the new privacy provisions go too far or not far enough, with proposed state and federal substitutes in the works.

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.

Robocall Bill Wins Approval in the House

From Consumer Reports Online:

A crackdown on robocalls moved one step closer Wednesday after the House voted 429-3 to increase consumer protections against the unsolicited and annoying phone calls.

The bill, known as the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, builds on the TRACED Act passed by the Senate in May. The House and the Senate now need to reconcile the two bills before sending the legislation to the White House for the President’s signature. That’s expected to happen in the fall.

In addition to giving regulators stronger enforcement tools, the House bill would require phone carriers to implement call identification technology and mandate that the Federal Communications Commission report to Congress annually on the state of robocalls.

On Tuesday, 80 consumer rights groups, including Consumer Reports and the National Consumer Law Center, sent a letter to Congress urging passage of the bill. The wireless industry trade group CTIA also supports it.

To date, there have been 29 billion robocalls in 2019, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking and tracking firm. “That’s nearly 90 calls per person in the U.S.,” said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici.

The blocking and tracking firm Truecaller estimates that consumers lost $10.5 billion to phone scams in 2018.

Read the complete article here.

Machines May Not Take Your Job, but One Could Become Your Boss

From today’s New York Times:

When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the call center of the insurance giant MetLife talks to a customer over the phone, he keeps one eye on the bottom-right corner of his screen. There, in a little blue box, A.I. tells him how he’s doing.

Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer, indicating that he should slow down.

Sound sleepy? The software displays an “energy cue,” with a picture of a coffee cup.

Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.

For decades, people have fearfully imagined armies of hyper-efficient robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs once done by humans. But in all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too.

Read the complete article here.

He Has Driven for Uber Since 2012 and He Makes About $40,000 a Year

From today’s New York Times:

Uber’s public stock offering next month will make a bunch of people remarkably rich. Peter Ashlock is not one of them, although he has toiled for the ride-hailing company almost since the beginning.

Mr. Ashlock, who will be 71 next week, has racked up more than 25,000 trips as an Uber driver since 2012. His Nissan Altima has 218,000 miles on it — nearly the distance to the moon. His passengers rate him 4.93 out of five stars. His favorite review: “Dude drove like a cabdriver.”

While he is an integral part of Uber’s success, Mr. Ashlock is barely getting by. His 2018 tax return will show an adjusted gross income in the neighborhood of $40,000, better than 2016 and 2017. But he has maxed out his $3,200 credit limit at the local Midas car-repair shop and needs to come up with $5,000 to pay his taxes. He has Social Security but no savings to buy a new car that will let him keep working.

Silicon Valley has always been a lottery where immense wealth is secured by a few while everyone else must hope for better luck some other time. Rarely, however, has the disparity been on such stark display as with Uber. Its stock market value is expected to be about $100 billion, which would make it one of the richest Silicon Valley public offerings of all time.

Among those with something to celebrate: Uber’s founders, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, the elite venture capitalists Benchmark and Google’s GV, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the mutual fund giant Fidelity. Some have already cashed in. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and chief executive until he was forced out after a series of scandals, reaped $1.4 billion by selling fewer than a third of his shares to private investors in 2017.

As independent contractors, drivers are not eligible for employee benefits like paid vacations or stock options. Uber said Thursday that it would offer bonuses of $100 to $10,000 to long-serving drivers. Its chief competitor, Lyft, did the same when it went public in March.

Read the complete article here.