Should gig economy workers get benefits?

Nov 10, 2015

A coalition of gig-economy executives, labor leaders and think-tank people are issuing a call to address the needs of workers, at a time when the way people work is changing dramatically. By some estimates, more than 50 million Americans are now self-employed.

The group published a letter Tuesday calling for a conversation on how to let on-demand companies flourish, without jeopardizing workers' economic security. 

Leaders from gig economy companies such as Etsy, Lyft and Handy are part of the alliance.

Eighty percent of the workers finding on-demand handyman, plumbing or housecleaning work through Handy put in fewer than 20 hours a week, the company said.

“What we want to do is figure out how we can continue to preserve that flexibility while allowing those folks to gain access to additional benefits,” said Oisin Hanrahan, Handy's co-founder and CEO.

Hanrahan said it’s too early to say whether on-demand companies should foot the bill for contingent workers to receive benefits like sick time, unemployment insurance and Social Security.

But the coalition says courts are not the place to figure it out.

Handy and other on-demand companies have been hit by lawsuits from workers who say they put in so many hours they're practically employees and should get benefits. 

“We’ve got a responsibility to help educate policy makers on what's actually happening on these platforms so that we can figure it out together,” Hanrahan said.

Some high-level contingent workers earn decent livings, said coalition member Andy Stern, president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union.

But as a growing number of companies depend on worker flexibility for their business models, Stern said, more and more workers struggle.

He said a model for handling those workers is needed.

“My hope is that as we saw with building trades unions, who work for many employers over short periods of time, that we can find a way to allow people to get benefits and build wealth without slowing down innovation,” he said.

Stern said the coalition will continue to meet to develop concrete proposals.