In 2019, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill, AB5 “The Gig Economy Law.” It redefined “employee” in an effort to try and dramatically reduce “contract workers.” This law is intended to force people who work to become ”employees” (of someone), and thereby receive more rights. Simultaneously it forces those who pay for work to become “employers” covering additional costs forced onto them by the legal definition of an “employee”. In other words, AB5 attempts to set back the advancement of the Gig Economy 30+ years. Last week, that law was put on hold by a California court, and California citizens will vote in November on whether requirements of AB5 should remain, or be repealed.
Go back to 1900 and there were very few “employees.” Most people just worked. But the industrial economy boomed, and with it the need to put people into factories. Showing up on time, doing a job, was crucial to the industrial economy – whether you were making car parts or pushing invoices around. We’ve all seen pictures of assembly lines in factories making shirts or lawn mowers, and assembly lines of gray steel desks where people manually processed documentation. Being an “employee” meant showing up and was central to developing the industrial economy, where lots of cogs were needed for the machine to work.
There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an Idea whose time has come.
But we’re not in an industrial economy any more. Since 1990 we’ve been transforming into the information economy (or the knowledge economy, pick your preferred term.) Automation has replaced labor, with robots making trucks while computers process documents. People don’t stand in assembly lines – machines do. Work doesn’t happen with our hands, it happens with our brains – and machines do the manual labor. Managers don’t manage people, they manage processes. As a result, companies have been realizing they need a lot fewer people.
No longer can employers consider employees for life. Rather, companies need flexibility to adjust to the fast paced marketplace. Owning resources, including labor, can feel like dragging an anchor along with your business. Yes, people are needed people to do things. But every business leader knows that the brainpower needed today is probably not what was needed yesterday and not what will be needed tomorrow. Businesses need to access the knowledge workers they need quickly and shift their resources fast in order to meet changing market conditions- agility not stability. Relationships are transactional, not societal.
This is actually good for everyone. A hundred years ago studios controlled everything about movie making, including actor salaries. Many actors (i.e. Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney) made dozens of movies, yet had very little money. But that lock was broken, and it allowed actors to sell their services to the highest bidder – leading to today’s “star economy” where actors make what they can get producers to pay. There is a set scale to employment, but every actor is a free agent able to negotiate their terms of “employment” for each project.
Major league sports is the same. Where once club owners dictated pay, today players negotiate across teams for the best contracts. It allows for negotiating the best price for the best service in an open, flexible economy. If you’re good at playing, or coaching, you negotiate with the teams to get your best price for your services.
Uber and Lyft aren’t much different from studios and sports franchisees. Once, taxi companies controlled the market. All of us spent time standing in lines, waiting on cabs, that too often were dirty and broken. Market access was controlled by taxi tokens, and so was pricing. So service deteriorated to as low as possible, while customers stood in line on Friday night hoping to get a cab home from the theatre. But Uber unleashed the market. Resources could be added, or removed, by market participants. Pricing was determined by the buyers and sellers. And pricing variability allowed for quality variations as drivers tried to acquire repeat business. Surge pricing meant you could get a ride on New Year’s eve, meeting the customer needs and with pricing to meet the supplier’s need for expanding short-term capacity.
You might not think of Kim Kardashian, Tom Brady and an Uber driver as gig workers. But they are. And this hasn’t been lost on most of us. As publishers have disappeared, writers now must sell their research and writing independently, no longer expecting a set salary and benefits from newspaper owners. Virtual office assistants abound. For almost 30 years we’ve been building a flourishing economy of “gig workers” who are looking to match their skills with market needs. Uber and Lyft are just platforms created to help match the sellers and buyers (as is FiveRR for graphics and other office services.) Their success has been due to meeting a very real market need.
Uber and Lyft have helped the trend toward individual economic independence grow, not created the trend. When you see managers, who work for a set wage, working 24x7x365 on their iPhone or other mobile device, what’s the difference between them and a “gig worker?” When it comes to getting the work done, nothing. Just how they are paid – and some serious illusions about the employee/employer compact that are wholly out of date. Increasingly, we are recognizing we are better off to maximize the value of our services working independently, and seeking out projects that can use our services as contractors, rather than going through the burden of “hiring” and “firing” across “employers” in a fast changing world. Uber didn’t put people out of work, the knowledge economy redefined work. Uber doesn’t create low pay, it just offers a market that allows for flexible capacity and variable pricing. Uber offers a platform matching buyers and sellers. And that’s something we need MORE as adaptability demands keep rising.
California legislators can see that work has changed. But their approach was backward. They are trying to push everyone – both workers and business people – into an outdated model. An industrial model of employment. That will never work. It won’t work because the economy has changed, the world has changed, needs have changed, and these trends will not reverse. Trying to rewind the clock will only cause employers to abandon markets, as Uber and Lyft did when they said they would leave California. Solutions must address trends for independence and accessibility, not try to apply 100 year old definitions to a modern problem.
Contract work is here to stay. It’s been growing for 30 years. What’s needed are better Gig Marketplace tools to help business people find the resources they need, for workers to find projects that fit their skills and that meet their societal needs.
The old model created the term “benefits” for societal needs comprised of unemployment pay, retirement pay, hazard compensation, health care, etc. and forced those costs onto the “employer.” In much of the world today these costs are born by the government, but in the USA they are still borne by “employers”. In a contractor relationship, no one is required to cover the costs of those benefits. In most businesses now, “employer” is a term with a lot less meaning since businesses need much more agility than they did in an industrial economy. During this transition from industrial to gig economy, those societal needs are not being met effectively, leading to individual suffering and much, much higher costs to society.
New solutions are required to meet these needs – instead of forcing the old model onto a new economy. Legislators and regulators need to recognize that old approaches need to be revamped. All of these problems need new solutions – not some effort to force the industrial model onto platform providers that do little more than match needs with skills.
And this requirement for change applies to labor representation as well. The Department of Labor is an industrial era dinosaur that has little to no value in a world of work-from-home employees, outsourced manufacturing plants and easily available offshore production. Industrial era labor unions make no sense when we don’t work on assembly lines. Yet, unions are a very important part of entertainment and professional sports. Because in the latter markets leaders have adapted the union’s services to meet modern needs. Whether they realize it or not, gig workers need help with representation. But that representation must be a lot more sophisticated at helping workers than the throngs of attorneys at the AFL-CIO.
Californians would be suffer negative impacts if Uber and Lyft leave the market. And they realize that. But the solution is not the blunt axe of AB5. Thus, the law will almost surely be reversed in the next election. Then, hopefully, California will step up to the challenge of leading the country with new approaches that meet gig worker needs – expanding their markets and opportunities while building social solutions to every day needs.
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