By John Leahy | UConn Journalism
Dec. 9, 2022
In May of 2020, Thomas Taber realized he was running out of money. The 20-year-old University of Connecticut student was living at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was ordering food consistently through online platforms like DoorDash and Uber Eats. Though the country was essentially shut down, he needed a job, and he knew exactly where to get one.
“I was ordering all this food through Uber Eats, and I realized that they probably needed drivers because of Covid,” he said. “So I downloaded the app and started doing deliveries.”
Taber continued driving throughout the summer of 2020, but encountered issues along the way, including financially. Though business was through the roof, it wasn’t reflected in his pay.
“Restaurants were basically closed down, and so many people were ordering out on Uber Eats. I worked a lot, and I made a decent amount of money, but after gas expenses, I realized I wasn’t even making minimum wage.”
Taber’s story is just one of millions of similar accounts from across the country. In the digital age, independent work has exploded in the United States, with a 2021 report by Pew Research finding that 16% of Americans have earned money through an online contracting platform like Uber or DoorDash. This group of 51 million Americans make up the gig economy, which encompasses all workers who work for short-term contracts or as freelancers, rather than for a customary long-term employer.
Over the past few years, the gig economy has come under scrutiny from workers and activists alike who hope to achieve greater privileges for independent laborers. This is especially true in Connecticut, and the state has become a national hotspot with the potential to create a blueprint for the future of independent labor.
In the wake of the pandemic, the gig economy has boomed nationwide. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of independent workers rose by 34%, according to a report by MBO Partners, a firm which connects independent contractors and freelancers to traditional employers. This increase was because workers are looking for increased flexibility in a changing job market.
“Worker flexibility is among the most appealing aspects of gig work, and gig-economy growth is possible in part because many traditional jobs cannot offer the flexible hours and location that a gig economy job typically offers,” said the Better Cities Project in a 2021 report.
Additionally, the statistics surrounding the gig economy suggest it may continue to expand as time goes along. According to the Better Cities Project report, 56% of all gig workers belong to Gen Z, and almost 78% of all gig workers “said they expect[ed] to perform as much or more gig work” in the following year.
The gig economy’s popularity extends to Connecticut. According to the same report from the Better Cities Project, Connecticut has three cities in the list of the top 100 of American metropolitan areas with the most independent workers. In the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk region, 10.4% of all workers are involved in a nonemployer arrangement, making it the fourth-most popular area in the country for gig work.
However, many of these Connecticut workers are unhappy in their positions, and the explosion of the gig economy has created questions for both workers and lawmakers.
In September, a group of rideshare drivers from the nonprofit organization Connecticut Drivers United staged a protest at New Haven City Hall. The group demanded better protections for independent workers, holding a banner that read, “Fares are up. Pay is down. Why?”
The purpose of the protest was to push for better wages for rideshare workers in Connecticut, as well as benefits such as paid sick time and protection against vehicle damages, according to coverage from the New Haven Register.
“Connecticut drivers are suffering. We all use Uber, and it’s very convenient for all of us, but the drivers are the ones that pay the consequences. The drivers need a solid base so we can continue to do our work,” Carlos Gomez, the founder of Connecticut Drivers United, told the Register.
Some Connecticut lawmakers agree. House Representative David Michel of Fairfield County’s 146th District co-sponsored a bill in 2021 that would have allowed gig workers to create a union and participate in bargaining with their employers. Michel said there is a clear need for increased protections for independent workers in Connecticut.
“It’s clear that there’s a need for better wages. The companies are taking so much money out of the fare. It’s clear that there is some need for medical coverage. There’s a lot of things that need to be established,” Michel said in a Zoom interview.
The bill, titled Senate Bill 1000, was never put up to a vote. Michel said the reason the bill failed was due to disagreements between the gig workers themselves.
The largest issue in the discussions was the concept of employee classification for gig workers. In their current state, gig workers are classified as self-employed under the federal and state umbrellas, meaning they are not entitled to the same benefits as traditional employees, and their employers are not required to pay employment taxes. According to Michel, it has been difficult for gig workers to agree on their classification, as some would like to become employees while others hope to remain independent contractors.
SB-1000 did not go so far as to classify gig workers as employees. Even so, companies like Lyft and DoorDash spoke out against employee classification in their written testimony to the Joint Committee on Labor and Public Employees in March 2021.
“Applying a labor practice intended for the industrial economy to a sharing economy model is problematic and could create a system that reduces the flexibility and control that drivers currently enjoy,” Rich Power, the Senior Public Policy Manager at Lyft, wrote in his testimony.
Michel said that the companies’ fixation on employee status was a sign that they are unwilling to collaborate with gig workers to achieve other benefits, such as medical coverage or overtime pay.
“This is a sign of them continuing to dismiss the needs of the workers,” he said. “They are talking about one thing, they are not talking about all of the other things that the workers are bringing to the table.”
However, the companies’ arguments have economic merit, as an employee classification could massively restrict the job market in the gig economy due to increased costs for employers like Uber. Robert Langlois, a professor of economics at the University of Connecticut, said that employee classification could actually be harmful to the workers themselves.
“If you’re going to make [gig workers] employees, you’re going to incur huge costs because you’re going to take this system and you are going to break it. The companies will have to pay $3,600 each year for gig employees, hiring fewer workers. Prices will go up, not all drivers will still be employed, and consumers will have less access to the services,” Langlois said in a Zoom interview.
Langlois said that if gig workers were to achieve employee status in Connecticut, it would hurt the workers more than the companies.
“The money will come out of the pockets of consumers and gig workers who are unemployed, not really the richest – they’ll still make their money. These kinds of well-intentioned laws can freeze us.”
Michel said that he felt progress had been made and he believes there is support among lawmakers to take action. He is currently waiting for the drivers to come to an agreement, commenting that if the workers decide to push for employment status, he will support them.
“I want to support what the consensus will say. It’s not up to me, I am there to serve. If I am going to push for a certain version of the bill, I want to make sure the gig workers are in favor of it, all of them.”
While gig workers continue to debate the full picture of what they want, Michel believes the reality of the situation is quite simple.
“In the end, everybody wants the same thing – a more fair pay and some coverage, some security.”
Whether they will get those things remains to be seen.
John Leahy is a senior at the University of Connecticut majoring in journalism and finance. He reported this story for UConn Journalism’s Fall 2022 Public Affairs reporting course.
TOP PHOTO: The explosion of the gig economy, including Uber Eats food delivery, has created questions for both workers and lawmakers. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)