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US ‘Flexible Work’ Bill Would Spell Disaster for Rights in Gig Economy

Workers Need More Protections, Not Less

A delivery man bikes with a food bag from Grubhub in New York, April 21, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

In the United States, a trio of lawmakers has launched an assault on the rights of gig workers, proposing a law that effectively excludes them,and many others who work on-demand, from the minimum wage and overtime pay.

The bill, entitled the “Worker Flexibility and Choice Act,” would permit “worker flexibility agreements” that exempt employers from providing minimum wage and overtime if they allow workers to turn down work from their firm and pursue work at competing businesses – both essential features of gig work.

The proposal reinforces the alarming narrative that workers must choose between flexibility in how and when they work and their right to a decent living. In reality, many workers could end up with neither.

Earnings in many sectors of the gig economy are already unpredictable and low. Workers for grocery delivery apps in California, for instance, shared with Human Rights Watch that opaque algorithms controlling how much they are paid per delivery negatively affect their earnings, sometimes driving their pay below the local minimum wage. Multiple studies across the country have also found, based on pay records submitted by rideshare drivers and food and grocery delivery workers, that many of them do not earn enough to cover rent or their living expenses, even as they toil in unsafe working conditions. This is why extending minimum wage requirements to gig workers, exactly the opposite of what the bill calls for, is vital.

Gig work may also offer less flexibility than workers have been led to believe. A seven-year study of gig workers led by Boston College economist and sociologist Juliet Schor found that people who depend on gig work to make ends meet were more likely to accept lower pay for the same amount of work. They also worked longer hours than those who engage in gig work for extra cash. For these workers, the urgency to accept as many gigs as possible to cobble together a living sharply curtails the freedom to log on or off as they please. US government data indicate that the majority of gig workers are dependent earners: A 2018 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 69 percent of people working for rideshare, delivery and other digital labor platforms work full-time hours.

Congress should not allow this dangerous bill to proceed. If it is serious about workers’ freedom and wellbeing, it should expand labor protections for gig workers, not roll them back.

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