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a California court, and California citizens will vote in November on whether requirements of AB5 should remain, or be repealed.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.
TRENDS MATTER. If you align with trends your business can do GREAT! Are you aligned with trends? What are the threats and opportunities in your strategy and markets? Do you need an outsider to assess what you don’t know you don’t know? You’ll be surprised how valuable an inexpensive assessment can be for your future business (https://adamhartung.com/assessments/)
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Leaders like to be deciders. Most leaders think of themselves as decision makers. In 2006 President George Bush, defending Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary said “I am the Decider. I decide what’s best.” It earned him the nickname “Decider-in-Chief.” Most CEOs echo this sentiment. Most leaders like to define themselves by their decisions.
But whether a decision is good or not is open to interpretation. Often immediately after a decision things may look great. It might appear as if that decision was obvious. And often decisions quickly make a lot of people happy.
As we enter the most intense part of the U.S. presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell potential voters what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected. And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File
It takes time to determine the quality of any decision.
However, the quality of most decisions is not based on the immediate, or obvious, first implications. Rather, the quality of a decision is discovered over time, as the consequences are revealed – intended and unintended. Because quite often, what looked good at first can turn out to be very, very bad.
The people of North Carolina passed a law to control the use of public bathrooms. Most people of the state thought this was a good idea, including the governor. But some didn’t like the law, and many spoke up. Last week the NBA decided that it would cancel its All-Star game scheduled in Charlotte due to discrimination issues caused by this law. This change will cost Charlotte about $100 million.
That action by the NBA is what’s called unintended consequences
. Lawmakers didn’t really consider that the NBA might decide to take its business
elsewhere due to this state legislation. It’s what some people call, “Oops. I didn’t think about that
when I made my decision.”
Often unintended consequences are more important than first reactions to decisions.
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, was a staunch supporter of unions. In his book Locked in the Cabinet, he tells the story of visiting an auto plant in Oklahoma supporting the local union. He thought his support would incent the company’s leaders to negotiate more favorably. Instead, the company closed the plant. Laid-off everyone. Oops. The unintended consequences of what he thought was obvious support led to the worst possible worker outcome.
President Obama worked Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America. One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who worked over 30 hours per week. So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours. Those that worked 32 (four days per week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut. Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes. Oops. Unintended consequence.
President Reagan and his First Lady launched the “War on Drugs.” How could that be a bad thing? Illegal drugs are dangerous, as is the supply chain. But now, some 30 years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that almost half (46.3% or over 85,000) of inmates are there on drug charges. The U.S. now spends $51 billion annually on this drug war, which is about 20% more than is spent on the real war being waged with Afghanistan, Iraq and ISIS. There are now over 1.5 million arrests each year, with 83% of those merely for possession. Oops. Unintended consequences. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
This is why it is so important leaders take their time to make thoughtful decisions, often with the input of many other people. Because the quality of a decision is not measured by how one views it immediately. Rather, the value is decided over time as the opportunity arises to observe the unintended consequences, and their impact. The best decisions are those in which the future consequences are identified, discussed and made part of the planning – so they aren’t unintended and the “decider” isn’t running around saying “oops.”
Think hard about the long-term complications of any decision.
As you listen to the politicians this cycle, keep in mind what could be the unintended consequences of implementing what they say:
- What would be the social impact, and transfer of wealth, from suddenly forgiving all student loans?
- What would be the consequences on trade, and jobs, of not supporting historical government trade agreements?
- What would be the consequences on national security of not supporting historically allied governments?
- What would be the long-term consequence of not allowing visitors based on race, religion or sexual orientation?
- What would be the consequence of not repaying the government’s bonds?
- What would be the long-term impact on economic growth of higher regulations on banks – that already have seen dramatic increases in regulation slowing the recovery?
- What would be the long-term consequences on food production, housing and lifestyles of failing to address global warming?
Business leaders should be very aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information available on the topic? Are inputs and expectations obtained from detractors, as well as admirers? Is there a balance between not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future? Did you consider the potential reaction by customers? Employees? Suppliers? Competitors?
There are very few “perfect decisions.” All decisions have consequences. Often, there is a trade-off between the good outcomes, and the bad outcomes. But the key is to know them all, and balance the interests and outcomes. Consider the consequences, good and bad, and plan for them. Only by doing that can you avoid later saying “oops.”
This week Starbucks and JPMorganChase announced they were raising the minimum pay of many hourly employees. For about 168,000 lowly paid employees, this is really good news. And both companies played up the planned pay increases as benefitting not only the employees, but society at large. The JPMC CEO, Jamie Dimon, went so far as to say this was a response to a national tragedy of low pay and insufficient skills training now being addressed by the enormous bank.
However, both actions look a lot more like reacting to undeniable trends in an effort to simply keep their organizations functioning than any sort of corporate altruism.
Since 2014 there has been an undeniable trend toward raising the minimum wage, now set nationally at $7.25. Fourteen states actually raised their minimum wage starting in 2016 (Massachusetts, California, New York, Nebraska, Connecticut, Michigan, Hawaii, Colorado, Nebraska, Vermont, West Virginia, South Dakota, Rhode Island and Alaska.) Two other states have ongoing increases making them among the states with fastest growing minimum wages (Maryland and Minnesota.) And there are 4 additional states that promoters of a $15 minimum wage think will likely pass within months (Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.) That makes 20 states raising the minimum wage, with 46.4% of the U.S. population. And they include 5 of the largest cities in the USA that have already mandated a $15 minimum wage (New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.)
In other words, the minimum wage is going up. And decisively so in heavily populated states with big cities where Starbucks and JPMC have lots of employees. And the jigsaw puzzle of different state requirements is actually a threat to any sort of corporate compensation plan that would attempt to treat employees equally for common work. Simultaneously the unemployment rate keeps dropping – now below 5% – causing it to take longer to fill open positions than at any time in the last 15+ years. Simply put, to meet local laws, find and retain decent employees, and have any sort of equitable compensation across regions both companies had no choice but to take action to raise the pay for these bottom-level jobs.
Starbucks pointed out that this will increase pay by 5-15% for its 150,000 employees. But at least 8.5% of those employees had already signed a petition demanding higher pay. Time will tell if this raise is enough to keep the stores open and the coffee hot. However, the price increases announced the very next day will probably be more meaningful for the long term revenues and profits at Starbucks than this pay raise.
At JPMC the average pay increase is about $4.10/hour – from $10.15 to $12-$16.50/hour. Across all 18,000 affected employees, this comes to about $153.5million of incremental cost. Heck, the total payroll of these 18,000 employees is only $533.5M (after raises.) Let’s compare that to a few other costs at JPMC:
Wow, compared to these one-off instances, the recent pay raises seem almost immaterial. While there is probably great sincerity on the part of these CEOs for improving the well being of their employees, and society, the money here really isn’t going to make any difference to larger issues. For example, the JPMC CEO’s 2015 pay of $27M is about the same as 900 of these lowly paid employees. Thus the impact on the bank’s financials, and the impact on income inequality, is — well — let’s say we have at least added one drop to the bucket.
The good news is that both companies realize they cannot fight trends. So they are taking actions to help shore up employment. That will serve them well competitively. And some folks are getting a long-desired pay raise. But neither action is going to address the real problems of income inequality.