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The Domestic Workers Alliance Creates New Framework For Improving Gig Economy Jobs

The organization wants companies like Uber and Handy to commit to improving jobs on their platforms via a new framework it created.

The Domestic Workers Alliance Creates New Framework For Improving Gig Economy Jobs
[Photo: Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives]

The new sector of on-demand services—via apps that allow users to instantly access everything from food delivery to cleaning services—is also creating a new type of job. Unfortunately, many of those jobs, offered gig by gig through online platforms or apps, aren’t as well-designed as the slick interfaces that dole them out.

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Workers sometimes report uncertainty over why their ratings have dropped or why they’re being fired. Some apps are designed in a way that could penalize workers who leave jobs that make them feel unsafe. Platforms rarely offer a good way for workers to offer feedback or connect with other workers, which means that when a Postmates courier had a friendly suggestion for how he could be more efficient, he resorted to an online petition. What stability or a safety net might look like in this type of labor market is still a giant unsolved question. And workers on some platforms, despite working full time, still can’t make a living wage.

As more work transitions to online platforms, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an organization that has helped five states pass a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that extends basic labor protections such as overtime pay, the minimum wage, and meal breaks to caretakers, is now hoping to spark innovation around a similar lack of protections faced by on-demand and online workers.

Over the last several months, it has been circulating a set of eight values called the Good Work Code to which it hopes companies like Uber, Handy, Postmates, Upwork, Care.com, and others will commit. They are: safety, stability and flexibility, transparency, shared prosperity, a livable wage, inclusion and input, support and connection, and growth and development.

Signing the pledge will signify a commitment to operationalize these values. Palak Shah, the NDWA’s social innovations director, who led development of the values and is meeting with companies the NDWA hopes will adopt them, describes them as a “common sense framework” or “north star” with which online work platforms can structure efforts towards creating better jobs. “Companies have been really good at solving problems for the customer and investors,” she says. “Let’s also solve problems for this third group of workers.”

The NDWA developed a similar program for the employers of domestic care workers in partnership with online job marketplace Care.com. Called the Fair Care Pledge, it offers guidelines for fair pay, setting clear expectations, and time off. Thousands of employers have signed it, including former president Bill Clinton. “We demonstrated to the tech world and social movement world that these parties could come together and work constructively,” Shah says.

She argues the NDWA is well-suited to campaign for the rights of workers on gig economy platforms because these workers have a lot in common with domestic workers. As distributed independent workers, like nannies and house cleaners, they aren’t legally entitled to regular work, sick leave, vacation days, matched contributions to Social Security, or retirement benefits.

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As Uber faces a class-action lawsuit raised by drivers who say they were misclassified as independent contractors, the question of labor issues in the “gig economy” has attracted an increasing amount of political attention.

Some gig economy companies say they worry that if they make efforts to improve jobs, it may be used as evidence against them in further misclassification lawsuits. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who has been speaking frequently about this issue, met with leaders of gig economy technology platforms in September to discuss possible solutions. “Companies say they want to try different things,” he says, “but they feel the regulatory environment precludes them from trying.”

When Managed By Q, an office cleaning and management company that uses technology to help manage work, ran into this problem, it opted out of the gig economy. “In a lot of ways, 1099 companies are structurally incapable of providing what we would consider good jobs,” says CEO Dan Teran. “For example, you can’t give incentive stock options to contractors under securities law. You can’t provide health benefits. You can’t train contractors because then, by definition, they are not contractors. This stuff makes a big difference.” Gig economy companies argue that part of what makes their jobs good is that, as independent contractors, workers pick their own hours and work schedules.

Some have proposed a third category of worker classification that would grant some protections and stability while allowing for the flexibility of the gig economy. Others, like Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union, have argued for portable benefits, which would be attached to individuals rather than jobs, run by community organizations.

Shah doesn’t necessarily oppose any of these efforts, but feels that private companies in the gig economy can do more for their workers if they agree to try. “Look at the sheer ingenuity it took to just figure these models out,” she says. “I know we can figure this out, too.”

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About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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