The organization of work is changing rapidly for America’s workers. While the latter decades of the 20th century witnessed a transformation from the post–World War II paradigm of long-term stable employment with a single employer to an economy in which many individuals expected to move through several jobs over their careers, the 21st century surge in new technologies has upended even those expectations. For millions today and in the future, the hope of attaining career-long security and support through one or more jobs is giving way to the reality of piece-rate work—and piecemeal economic insecurity—often, in one-time, part-time, hours-long, and be-your-own-boss short-term “gigs,” assigned to them by well-capitalized brokers of labor.
The “on-demand” economy is garnering increasing public attention, from partisan sparring on the campaign trail to articles and editorials hailing the opportunities and highlighting the obstacles stemming from this rising sector. But the reality is that for some time, workers and organizers have been pulling back the veil on the on-demand economy, shedding light on online app-based companies that are amassing revenues and profits through the labor of growing numbers of individual workers who provide the services the companies market to others.
In the face of mounting criticism over their treatment of workers, many of these companies have argued that any labor regulation will crush the innovation they have advanced. They say they are not employers, and the individuals whose labor they profit from are not their employees, because they offer only an online platform that workers and consumers use to find each other. This argument, however, ignores the fact that these on-demand companies are actually performing a labor-brokering function that is not new but has been around for decades. At its core, their business is to dispatch workers who provide services to consumers and businesses.The use of online platforms to broker work should not insulate businesses from employer status, nor do the artificial labels these businesses attach to their workers define the employment relationship. Simply put: many individuals working in the on-demand economy are employees, and their employers should treat them as such.
Regardless of how these businesses characterize their relationships with workers, they should not be allowed to shut workers out of what our nation’s baseline labor standards were intended to convey: the opportunity to achieve and sustain economic security through work. The technology used by these companies and others holds enormous potential to benefit both businesses and workers. To ensure that this potential is met, we must enforce our existing labor standards aggressively and adapt them where and as needed, to ensure they deliver essential labor rights to all, protect law-abiding employers, and secure the safety net and tax dollars connected to employment for the good of us all.