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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Has ‘gig work’ become a dirty word?

A traveler enters a car from a ride-hailing service at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on April 19, 2022.

By Kellen Browning

When more than 11,000 film and television writers in the Writers Guild of America union went on strike this month, they called out deteriorating working conditions, criticized unfair pay and said they worried about losing their jobs to artificial intelligence.

One of their demands stood out: Hollywood writers wanted studios to guarantee them weeks of work at a time, giving them some certainty, rather than a new method that would hire them by the day. In other words, they want to avoid becoming part of the gig economy.

Adam Conover, a comedian, said studios were trying to “employ us one day a week like we’re Uber drivers.” David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” wrote that screenwriting had become “a ruthless gig economy.” And Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a writer and producer for “Law and Order: SVU,” tweeted that “we fight for writing as a career and not a cheap gig.”

“We’re looking at a future where writers could be hired per day in order to come in and work on an ongoing series,” Takeuchi Cullen said in an interview. Writers already work on a freelance basis, but she said day-to-day arrangements were more unpredictable and left them in a bind, unable to predict their finances or pay their rent. “Suddenly, a television writer is going from job to job to job, trying to patch together their annual income.”

In other words, for some, gig work has become shorthand for instability and low wages. That’s what state lawmakers in Minnesota thought, too, when they passed a bill this month guaranteeing minimum pay for Uber and Lyft drivers that they said would add a layer of security to a challenging career. It was vetoed by the governor Thursday, one sign of how fraught the question of protections for an ad hoc workforce has become.

The writers strike and demands have prompted renewed attention to gig work, where someone might work for a variety of companies or for themselves, often with irregular hours. It’s an old concept, with musicians playing gigs and artists and other creative types working their own hours while selling their work.

Over the past decade, the idea of gig work has been popularized by app-based platforms like Uber and Lyft, which classify their drivers as independent contractors and avoid treating them as employees. Many full-time workers, especially those in low-wage jobs, were enticed to these platforms by the prospect of working flexible hours and driving passengers around to make money.

The allure of flexibility soon gave way to a reality of low pay and unreliable hours, labor advocates say, though the companies say that drivers’ wages are still increasing and that record numbers of people are driving on their platforms.

Still, the shifting perception of Uber and similar companies has caused some workers to sour on the idea of gig labor, even though workers for online platforms make up only a small part of the gig economy and less than 1% of the overall labor force, by some estimates.

“Gig work has become a dirty word. Ten years ago, it still contained this possibility of freedom from the 9-to-5,” said Louis Hyman, the author of a book about the gig economy and temporary work. “It’s gone from being the possibility of freedom to the certainty of insecurity.”

It’s difficult to determine how big the U.S. gig labor force is today, in part because gig work has so many different possible meanings. Most estimates, including from federal data and academic studies, suggest that 10% to 15% of U.S. workers rely on or participate in alternative or gig work, though some tallies suggest that as many as a third of U.S. workers occasionally receive some kind of supplemental income from this work.

Though drivers for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart make up a small percentage of this workforce, their concerns — about earning less money, growing expenses and the increasing dangers of their job — have reverberated across the gig industry.

Bitter fights between labor advocates and the companies have erupted across the country over whether drivers should be considered part of the gig economy at all. Labor activists contend that the platforms are misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors and depriving them of labor protections and employee benefits, while not allowing them to act fully autonomously. The companies say that drivers prefer the flexibility of being independent and that they have cobbled together some compromises that offer limited benefits while maintaining that flexibility.

Some drivers say they have seen their wages decline. When Eid Ali started driving for Uber and Lyft in Minnesota nearly a decade ago, he said, he earned as much as $400 per week driving full time. Over the past few years, it’s been more like $100 or $150, before expenses, for the same number of hours driven.

For drivers like him, “it was a slow realization,” Ali said. He said drivers initially gushed about the benefits of being a gig worker, with decent pay and flexibility. Now they are more likely to dissuade others from such work.

“They used to say something positive about the gig economy: ‘Yes, we are making enough to feed our families, it is flexible, we are working whenever we want,’” he said. “That is not there now. It’s gone.”

Ali, president of an advocacy group called the Minnesota Uber/Lyft Drivers Association, helped push for the Minnesota gig bill.

Others say they have not seen much of an erosion in the promise of gig work. It is still a popular way for people to earn money on the side, and a coalition called Protect App-Based Drivers and Services, which is backed by the gig companies, said driver earnings are rising. The coalition pointed to compromises — like Proposition 22 in California, which prevented drivers from being classified as employees but gave them a minimum wage and limited benefits — as signs of progress.

“More than 1.3 million Californians choose to work with an app-based rideshare or delivery platform because this kind of work offers guaranteed earnings and benefits like access to a health care stipend,” said Molly Weedn, a coalition spokesperson.

Alexsiya Flores, a part-time gig driver for companies like DoorDash and Shipt, a delivery service, said she has not “seen that much pushback — I’ve seen things getting better” because of minimum-pay bills like Prop 22.

“I am always looking for things that have flexibility,” said Flores, a filmmaker in Los Angeles who is part of the industry coalition.

Still, labor experts and advocates say the term “gig work,” in the minds of many, has become a stand-in for low-paid or exploitative work — in part because of how people perceive companies like Uber.

“Uber and Lyft have made that more negative connotation more prominent,” said Laura Padin, director of work structures at the National Employment Law Project, which has argued that gig drivers should be classified as employees. “There’s been a shift in what people see about those types of jobs. People realized they’re not as good as they seemed” initially.

Low pay and unhappy working conditions are far from exclusive to the gig economy, and might even be reasons gig work continues to grow, despite its drawbacks.

“These kinds of low-paid platform jobs are only possible because the rest of the economy has failed the American worker,” Hyman, the author, said, arguing that the financial stress for workers in retail and service industries made Uber seem like a favorable alternative.

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