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Another Voice

Gig economy workers must be protected in pandemic

By Samuel Alba

Rampant employee misclassification in the gig economy creates an environment that encourages workplace violations and abuses. While gig economy companies earn billions of dollars, it is the “independent contractors” who shoulder the brunt of the work without adequate compensation or worker protections.

A Buffalo News report on a labor action by Instacart workers (“Is it really a strike if Instacart workers aren’t employees?," March 30) minimizes the worker abuses in the gig economy and enables gig economy companies to continue to fail to protect workers on the front-lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Worker protection laws exist to shield workers from abuses like unsafe working conditions and wage violations. Labeling someone an “independent contractor” should never enable a company to ignore worker protection laws.

It is misguided for gig economy companies to manipulate outdated employee classification laws. In California, massive regulation of the gig economy recently passed and there is already an effort in New York to create similar gig economy worker protection laws.

New York’s highest court just held that Postmates, a gig economy food delivery service, misclassified all of its New York workers as independent contractors for the purposes of unemployment. The court implied a change in the laws regulating the gig economy is necessary.

Without concluding anything about Instacart, the quotes in the News article should sound the alarm on worker abuses during the pandemic rather than further enable the excuse that “independent contractors” do not deserve the same protections as employees.

The article quotes the Gig Workers Collective as noting “the average pay per order is well under $10.” That is likely less than minimum wage if the worker is determined to be an employee. The article goes on to quote an “independent contractor” named Katie Lane, who notes she is cashing in on working full-time for Instacart during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The fact remains that, even though Lane is doing well as an independent contractor, she would be doing a whole lot better if she had the protections of an employee, including the ability to earn overtime wages, be reimbursed for mileage, obtain the benefits and protections of the workers’ compensation law, and have OSHA oversight of her working conditions.

The Buffalo News article notes Instacart workers decided to strike after weeks of being denied hand sanitizer and increased compensation. This is unacceptable -- hand sanitizer and other PPE are resources that should be available to all people, regardless of workplace classification.

Grocery delivery is proving to be a vital and essential service in our nation’s time of crisis. The very least we can do to thank the heroes risking their health so we can feed our families is to provide them with the same protections afforded to all classified as employees.

Samuel Alba is a partner in the law firm Friedman & Ranzenhofer, P.C., where he focuses in part on employee misclassification and wage and hour cases.  


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