With all the debates going on in Washington and across our country right now, it’s easy to lose sight of the big, long-term questions that will shape the future of our economy and the future of work.
The new year has already highlighted the need for a much bigger conversation about these questions. As California grapples with the messy implementation of its flawed worker classification law, AB5, we’re seeing that finding enduring solutions that give workers the protections they deserve and the flexibility they demand will require companies, labor unions, government at all levels and other stakeholders to all work together.
In states like New York, a growing number of legislators recognize the folly of quick fixes, and some have signaled a readiness for leadership on this important issue. Policymakers have been working on various proposals that would create a new type of worker classification, arguing that workers deserve a comprehensive solution beyond the blunt instrument of just one type of employee model alone. And that makes sense, because eliminating gig workers altogether and forcing nearly everyone to become traditional W-2 employees strips workers of their flexibility and autonomy, and also short-circuits the innovation and dynamism we need to drive economic growth.
As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) mentioned in his State of the State speech this week, innovation without ensuring the protection, benefits and advancement of workers is no way forward. By building upon recent efforts to expand benefits for transportation workers, New York has the opportunity to scale a portable benefits model that includes more workers, like on-demand delivery drivers, while also bringing together industry, labor and lawmakers to realize a solution for the future of work that can be a model to other states.
A new letter by members of the New Democrats Coalition in the U.S. Congress provides a roadmap for new solutions. They identify a central challenge of the new economy: how to make sure workers have access to benefits and worker protections while also “preserving the flexibility, value, and autonomy offered through alternative work.” Millions of American workers have sought out on-demand platforms because of the unprecedented flexibility and autonomy that allows them to earn extra income and choose how much, and how often, they work. But gig workers need a new safety net that guarantees fair pay, robust benefits, anti-discrimination/harassment protections and a strong voice.
The collaborative national dialogue envisioned by the Congressional New Democrats offers a better approach. Only if gig companies, workers, unions and policymakers all come together around the same table will we have a chance to hammer out the innovative solutions we need. On-demand companies like Postmates are already thinking big about how to make these solutions a reality — from occupational accident insurance, to portable benefit funds, to simplifying tax burdens for workers, to upskilling opportunities. Initiatives like these are just the start, and important down payments on the industry-wide, nation-wide approach that gig workers deserve and our economy needs.
In their letter, the New Democrats explain why so many gig workers are afraid of losing their flexibility. Platform-enabled work “provides a new stream of flexible income for workers to perform work on their own terms and time.” In addition, the low barrier to entry for gig work means people with other jobs can jump on a platform when they have extra time — as we saw in the Washington area during the last government shutdown — and also offers workers “opportunities to earn and manage unexpected expenses like medical bills; expands opportunities for the unemployed, vulnerable, or overlooked workers such as those formerly incarcerated for non-violent crimes.” Too often, these benefits get overlooked in debates about the future of the gig economy, but with the momentum of this letter and active discussions in New York and California, we have an opportunity to work together and address them head on.
Instead of turning back the clock to an outdated one-size-fits-all approach to worker classification, the New Democrats look forward to new solutions that provide “every worker, no matter their relationship to a company or how they work, with decent wages, guaranteed fundamental protections, and access to a basic set of benefits that provide financial and structural security, such as retirement savings contributions or health care benefits.”
The issue is not whether we should protect the worker voice and the unions that helped build our middle class, but how we do so in the era of flexible work. The fight is not if we offer benefits to individuals who freelance or shift jobs, but how we make those benefits portable across them.
Collaboration and cooperation is the only way to achieve the pro-worker, pro-innovation solutions we need. The New Democrats are offering a roadmap; now it’s up to all of us to follow it together.
Vikrum Aiyer is vice president of public policy at Postmates and a former senior policy advisor in the White House National Economic Council.
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