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Why companies based on gig work are hurting more than their employees

High-flying scooter and ride-share companies risk both their employees’ well-being and bottom line by relying on contract-work models.

Why companies based on gig work are hurting more than their employees
[Photo: Brett Sayles/Unsplash]
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Imagine that one of two people will be responsible for your safety. The first receives health and dental benefits, earns more than minimum wage, has clear advancement options within their company, and may even belong to a union. The second has no insurance benefits, works wildly erratic hours, feels no allegiance to their company, and makes less money. Which person would you pick?

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The ride-share and micromobility industry is under the microscope for worker violations and safety concerns. Major shared e-scooter companies are facing lawsuits from injured riders. Revel, a moped company operating in New York City, recently reopened operations after a shutdown earlier this year, as complaints about reckless driving and fatalities involving its vehicles mounted. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft face a number of lawsuits related to allegations by passengers of injury, assault, and harassment. A California ballot measure asking voters whether gig workers should count as employees has shown that many Americans are understandably focused on legal and legislative methods to introduce more order and security to the gig economy.

Like most startup industries, the companies providing these new mobility options are scrappy, doing things on the fly, and, at times, operating shortsightedly. This needs to change. As these forms of transportation edge their way to being a supplementary public transportation in a pandemic and beyond, we need to take this responsibility seriously.  After all, when the public gets on a bus, they don’t imagine the bus’s tires were changed not at a company-designated station but in someone’s garage.

Companies themselves would be wise to consider moving away from the gig economy and choosing to play a greater role in ensuring the well-being of their workers because doing so is fundamentally linked to the safety of their consumers and the success of their business.

Outdoor apparel giant Patagonia is famous for taking this approach: With generous time off, on-site child care, and the doors locked on weekends, the company has doubled in size since 2008 and is currently expanding into new markets. Employee turnover is minimal. CEOs and business school professors are increasingly aware that giving workers better wages and benefits also tends to be a recipe for greater profitability and employee retention in the long run.

Of course, any business has to keep an eye on the bottom line, but the damage done from rider injuries and safety lawsuits gives pause—financial pause, especially with potential liabilities tied up. But also pause because if you are hurting your customers, it’s not great for your brand. Investing in worker safety and well-being is more expensive in the short term, certainly. But in the long term, it leads to a more profitable company.

In 2019, my company, Spin, chose to make more than 90% of its workers employees with benefits, as opposed to contractors. In all markets our lowest starting wage is $15 per hour, with incremental increases based on tenure. We did this in part because research has shown that companies with healthy employees have better business performance. Companies with excellent safety, environment, and health programs outperform the S&P 500 by 3%-5%. But also because gig workers are less likely to have been thoroughly trained, more likely to leave for another job, and are often incentivized to cut corners in order to keep a high number of scooters on the streets and boost their own apparent productivity. This is unacceptable. Carefully training and fairly compensating the employees who work to keep our scooters safe for riders ensures that employees face no perverse incentives to rush through their work.

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Safety ‘out there’ also begins with safety in the home base.

Safety out there also begins with safety in the home base. Designating our workers as employees with benefits—as opposed to contractors—allowed us to put protocols in place in both operations and maintenance and high standards endorsed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This operation would have been much less achievable with an ad hoc staff.

In order for companies in the ride-share and shared mobility space to truly unleash their potential, we must first gain public trust by improving the job we do on safety. Part of this will require that city planners and urban voters reimagine the nature of transportation infrastructure away from cars and toward biking, walking, and scooter transportation. It’s also vital that companies themselves give their workers every reason to do careful, excellent work in maintaining their fleets. As private-public partnerships create another way for people to move around, we need to make sure our workers are as supported as the workers behind transit agencies.

As the pandemic continues to demonstrate, the choice between safety and economic growth is a false reality, and companies should not pose these options against one another. At the end of the day, treating workers well is ultimately the safest choice for both businesses and their customers.


Kyle Rowe is the global head of government partnerships at Spin, the micromobility unit of Ford Mobility.