As efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus force Philadelphians into isolation, consumers are increasingly relying on gig workers to deliver groceries, takeout, and beer.
Instacart had the busiest few weeks of the grocery delivery app’s history, CEO Apoorva Mehta said, announcing it would more than double its workforce by adding 300,000 more workers.
Philadelphia’s homegrown “unicorn” delivery app, GoPuff, launched an effort to deliver essential items to health-care workers.
And UberEats said it would waive delivery fees for customers during the pandemic.
But even as their work is deemed “essential” in the face of government-mandated business closures, the delivery workers who power these apps are in a precarious position. There is no law that requires companies such as Instacart or GoPuff to keep their workers safe on the job. And if they get sick or hurt on the job, they do not qualify for sick pay or worker’s compensation. That’s because most app-based gig workers are classified — or misclassified, depending on whom you ask — as independent contractors, who aren’t afforded the same legal protections as employees.
Those protections include worker’s compensation, paid time off, unemployment insurance, and the right to collectively bargain. In Philadelphia, independent contractors aren’t covered by the city’s paid sick leave law. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act, the federal law that requires employers to provide safe working conditions for their employees, doesn’t cover independent contractors, either.
At the same time, many of these jobs are dangerous, advocates say, and sometimes, gig workers are forced to risk their safety. That’s why some gig workers, including those working for Instacart, are fighting for hazard pay and protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Instacart announced it would offer 14 days of sick pay to workers who have the virus or who are forced to stay home under quarantine. But Alyssa Longobardi, who is helping organize an Instacart strike that started Monday, said she hasn’t heard of any worker getting approved for the sick pay. The striking workers’ issues include hazard pay and protective equipment.
Instacart declined to comment on how many workers had gotten sick pay.
The federal stimulus package passed last week expands unemployment insurance to independent contractors until the end of the year, though gig workers who don’t have proper documentation of pay could have problems getting the expanded benefits.
The issue of gig workers’ rights rose to the fore in the summer of 2018 in Philadelphia, when 34-year-old Pablo Avendano was hit and killed while biking to deliver an order submitted through the app Caviar. And it’s an issue that gig workers of all kinds — from Uber drivers to domestic workers to Instacart shoppers — have sought to organize around.
It’s hard to measure the size of the gig economy because there are several ways these workers can be classified. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2017, 10.6 million people — or almost 7% of total employment — listed “independent contractor” as their main job.
On-demand tech companies such as Uber, Grubhub, and GoPuff have built their business on the independent contractor model and have fought for their right to classify workers as such — last year, Uber and Lyft invested $60 million in such an effort. It’s cheaper for companies to classify their workers as independent contractors because they don’t have to pay for employee benefits. The classification also affords them more flexibility around their workforce, allowing employers to easily scale up or shrink their staff in any given market. Some workers also prefer the classification because it allows them freedom and flexibility.
But workers, advocates, and elected officials have said these companies are skirting responsibility for the workers that make their businesses possible. These groups have challenged the independent contractor classification in court, to mixed success, as well as passed legislation to make it harder for companies to misclassify their workers.
California’s AB5 law, which passed last fall and kicked off a series of similar bills across the country, attempted to tackle the problem of gig workers’ rights by making it harder for companies to misclassify their workers. But it also sparked a firestorm around certain kinds of gig workers, such as freelance writers, who said the law ultimately hurt their work.