As COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, continues to spread, employees who can are staying home and practicing social distancing in order to keep themselves and their neighbors from contracting the virus. Yet one group of workers is dangerously exposed — “gig” workers.
According to a 2018 Gallup Poll, 36% of Americans participate in the gig economy in some way. That number includes freelancers and the self-employed, people who chose gig jobs for their flexibility. But it also includes a significant number of people who are actually working for a large company, but are treated as non-employees. Those are the Uber and Lyft drivers, DoorDash delivery people and Instacart shoppers; caregivers, janitors, housekeepers and handymen working on platforms like Handy.
As social distancing causes us to rely even more heavily on those gig workers who enable us to stay home and avoid crowds, gig workers are unable to do the same. Most of the app-based gig work is low-paying; workers need as many hours as possible to make ends meet. They can’t afford to stay home and miss the opportunity to get paid in order to protect themselves and others.
Because they aren’t employees, they don’t have paid sick days. And they won’t get paid sick days through the legislation currently being contemplated in Congress. Many of them lack health insurance and are reluctant to seek medical care because of the expense. Because they are not considered employees, they are not entitled to unemployment insurance if they get laid off because of economic downturns.
Some gig companies have already announced limited steps they are taking to protect workers and hopefully, others will follow their lead.
But it isn’t enough.
We need a long-term solution that closes the loophole that allows large gig companies like Uber to profit from these workers without being required to provide them basic employment protections — solely because of the fiction that each Uber driver is in business for himself. As policymakers seek to expand the safety net to support hourly workers who will be hurt by the current crisis, they should think creatively about including gig workers, too.
Specifically, federal and state governments should move quickly to ensure that worker protections and support systems — especially paid sick days, paid medical leave and unemployment insurance — apply to gig workers too, and not just to standard employees. As the new coronavirus continues to spread, we cannot afford to leave gig workers without access to these protections. Asking sick gig workers to work puts their colleagues and customers at risk for further spreading the deadly virus.
Now more than ever gig workers need the same protections as standard employees.
Clermont F. Ripley is a senior staff attorney with the Workers’ Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center.