Could Pandemic Shutdowns Lead to More Worker Protections?

Story by Larry Altman

Uber driver Ruben Gonzalez spent about 4 ½ hours driving around in his car Wednesday. He got two customers, made $26, and went home.

“There’s no one going anywhere,” the 68-year-old Long Beach resident said. “I drive around a lot by universities and schools. That really impacted me when they closed…The airport – you can wait at the airport and you can see there’d be so many cars. Now the cars are just sitting there.”

Musician Seth Kreiswirth of Redondo Beach last performed Sunday at a crowded Southern California club. He’s not sure when he will play his next gig.

“I am not desperate,” he said. “I am not fearful. I am really trying to be inventive and think of the most ways I can get to a place of making some money.”

Hair stylist Dana Gache said she lay awake throughout Tuesday night, wondering whether she should shut down her home business near Culver City to protect herself and her 87-year-old mother from contracting COVID-19, or whether she will lose all her clients if she stops working.

“I just have to hope people are sheltering,” Gache said. “My business has really thinned out a lot. I do want to say to the ones who still want to come, ‘We shouldn’t. We should all stop seeing each other.'”

For gig workers — or independent contractors — like Gonzalez, Kreiswirth and Gache, the shutdowns of workplaces, nightclubs, bars and restaurants, as well as the need to maintain a 6-foot social distance from other people, is having a significant financial impact.

Ruben Gonzalez, uber driver, posing in front of his car | Photo by Karen Foshay

It also has pointed the spotlight on the dangers for the increasingly growing labor force of independent contractors, people who perform jobs daily by choice or necessity, but  who have no sick leave, no workers compensation, no unemployment insurance, and often no medical insurance.

“This unprecedented situation has revealed something that has existed for a long time. This is showing the cost of that problem,” said David Weil, dean of Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management in Waltham, Massachusetts. “It’s the growth of essentially a whole group of people who work very hard but are classified incorrectly as independent contractors. There is no safety social net for any worker in that situation.”

Independent contractors, or gig workers, don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, workers compensation or a minimum wage. Orders to stay home because they are sick are often ignored because it means no income.

“I don’t have sick time or vacation,” said Gonzalez, who has a wife and two children. “For me, it’s housing expenses and food….It’s constantly in my mind. I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning, ‘How am I going to pay this or that?'”

Even if bills are allowed to be deferred during the pandemic crisis, they still loom in the future.

“I’m going to get further behind,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a cycle you can never catch up. Even the stimulus they are doing – if they are going to defer student loans or (let you) pay less rent, or credit cards, when we go back to normal, all of those are going to be sitting there.”

Weil said 10 to 12 percent of workers classify themselves as independent contractors, but he believes that number is higher when people with second jobs as a Lyft driver, for example, are considered.

Provisions in the Senate bill passed Wednesday provide unemployment pay and paid sick leave for people who are employees, but others are not included. Legislation, Weil said, should provide sick leave to more people to make sure people who are ill stay home.

“The last thing we want are people doing home DoorDash deliveries,” Weil said. “If they are sick, we don’t want them delivering food to people’s houses.”

J. Paul Leigh, a health economics professor at the Center for Healthcare Policy and Research at UC Davis, agreed that workers need more protection. Thirty percent of the workforce, he said, doesn’t have paid sick leave, and “that means we will have more deaths.” He blamed the decline of union representation for the decline in worker benefits.

A calendar with multiple gigs crossed out due to COVID-19. Work has dried up for millions of workers. Independent contractors and gig workers who don’t qualify for paid time off.

“The gig worker situation is dire and it really needs to be addressed,” he said.

Leigh suggested companies that employ gig workers – like Uber Eats and Grubhub –should actually improve their pay for workers putting their lives at risk during the pandemic.

“The people that are delivering groceries for Uber Eats and Grubhub are soldiers on the front line, exposing themselves to this virus to deliver food to many people who are not going to the grocery stores,” Leigh said. “They deserve hazardous duty pay. They deserve us to stand up and salute….The idea that they don’t have sick pay or that somehow their income is going to be cut is immoral.”

Reported predictions of a recession with up to 20 percent unemployment and massive job losses across the nation will only add to the gig workers’ financial woes.

“We want to fight this virus for all Americans and this means soldiers on the front lines, health care workers, police, firefighters – but delivering food to people is an essential activity,” Leigh said. “Those companies should open their coffers and provide funds for these drivers to provide some regular standard of living to whatever they’ve had in the last several months on average. These companies should provide that level of support.”

Some companies, including food delivery and Amazon are looking to hire gig workers to meet an increasing demand as people are ordered to stay home, restaurants are closed and long lines are forming at supermarkets, where shoppers find empty shelves.

Government officials reported this week that 281,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits, a 33 percent jump over the week before and the largest since 1992. On Friday, Goldman Sachs economists predicted 2.25 million Americans will file for unemployment benefits this week.

Weil said it’s possible the COVID-19 outbreak could lead to legislation to help independent workers, including calls for comprehensive health care coverage.

“This has made it very clear for why it’s essential,” he said. “Paid sick leave and paid time off was starting to come up to a national stage. I think this brings it center stage. So many millions of workers are not protected under any laws.”

California tried to provide the protections for gig workers last year when the legislature passed and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB5, a measure that requires companies like Uber and Grubhub to provide workplace benefits and protections for independent contractors if the worker performs 35 jobs for a single company. Uber and other similar companies opposed the measure, but so did many of the people it was designed to help — the musicians, freelance writers, drivers and others who fear the limit will cost them individual gigs and the freedom to set their own schedules.

Dana Gache, hairstylist, mixing color at her studio | Photo by Karen Foshay

California tried to provide the protections for gig workers last year when the legislature passed and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB5, a measure that requires companies like Uber and Grubhub to provide workplace benefits and protections for independent contractors if the worker performs 35 jobs for a single company. Many labor officials believe those workers are misclassified as independents. Some gig workers oppose the limits, saying it hurts their efforts to get jobs and restricts their freedom to set their own schedules.

Although gig workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, they might believe their work is integral to a business. They may be able to apply for benefits with a misclassification claim, said Julie Su, secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency..

“I would say we are lucky to live in California, where there are protections for employees and we have strong laws that address misclassification,” Su said.

In the meantime, Kreiswirth and Gache will hope for the best.

Kreiswirth, a drummer, keyboardist and vocalist who performs at clubs and in tribute band shows for artists including Elton John and Queen, said he is often asked what his real job is.

“This is my real job,” he said. “I worked with an automobile company in a corporate setting for 20 years. I left that job and I decided I wanted to do something that brings me joy. I don’t know if I could say the same if the AB5 goes into full effect. I don’t know what the future holds for me at the moment but I’m trying to be as positive as possible.”

Gache said she is also trying to remain positive.

“We are all in this together,” Gache said. “We have to have some sort of faith….Are we all going to be on the street? This can’t happen. Something is going to give. Things always work out. You’ve got to have hope, right?”

Kreiswirth said he is still scheduling 2021 dates.

“People believe this will be contained,” he said. “There will be some sort of antidote that takes care of everything. We are hopeful.”