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The staff of the Tompkins County Workers Center have emerged as a valuable resource for workers in the gig economy. 

For several years, the gig economy has been a powerful presence locally, with apps like Uber, Lyft, Grubhub and others driving the industry. But while these apps may have reached the pinnacle of popularity with users, for their employees, it may be a different story altogether.   

Workers have found varied success from what they believed their gig economy experience was going to be. But with some highs come a wide range of lows, some of which appear to be making it more difficult for workers to benefit financially from their long hours.

According to a survey done by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, preliminary numbers found a great deal of difficulty in working in gig/app-based jobs. Using a sample size of about 270 participants working in gig economy jobs across New York State. Maria C. Figueroa, director of labor and policy research, discussed the preliminary results, which show that working several apps is what people must do to get by.   

But one thing she said was striking in the findings was only 13 percent said they could support themselves by fully working through apps. Twenty-seven percent said that they had to resort to other support systems, including public assistance. Figueroa found this to be especially true of those who work for ride-hailing services.  

“Sixty-two percent of the workers we surveyed work for Uber, but also, 56 percent of them work not just for Uber but also for Lyft,” Figueroa said. “Because of the fact that this kind of work, the digital platform work is not enough for them to make a living, a lot of these workers are working for several platforms at the same time. For instance, when we ran the survey, we found out 13 percent of the workers that responded to the survey worked for four or more applications.”  

One person in the study was working for six apps at the same time, which is something Figueroa said was quite common in Upstate New York. Since the issue of traffic isn’t as prominent, it’s easier to deliver for apps like Uber Eats, GrubHub or DoorDash. The survey found that over 50 percent of respondents work for more than one app.  

For the purposes of this survey, they selected some of the highest employers in the state: Uber, Lyft, Uber Eats, GrubHub, DoorDash, Instacart, Care.com, Postmates, and Airbnb (Airbnb provides a service). For the most part, the postings confirmed the findings of the survey data.

One of the biggest issues to be mentioned in the interviews was sexual harassment. The biggest reason for this is that many of these companies match someone with the customer. For women, according to Figueroa, this can often lead to harassment, with customers sometimes becoming belligerent. And since Uber and Lyft don’t pay for drivers to have a dashboard camera, these are extra expenses incurred by the driver. Figueroa also said that one of the common complaints they received from those interviewed for the survey was about how issues normally dealt with by an employer would fall to the employee to handle.   

The issue of gig economy workers not receiving the same rights as employees revolves around their classification as independent contractors. Even though this does prevent workers from such apps like Postmates and Uber from receiving health care and unemployment benefits, it has become a workable business model, Figueroa said. Other results of the survey showed that many of these workers are unable to sustain themselves with this work alone, causing them to look for help from public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  

Since many of these companies conduct the hiring and work process through an app, there isn’t really a boss, per se. This can make it difficult for workers to lodge a complaint about their working environment. In this instance, places like the Tompkins County Workers’ Center step in to help workers get the restitution they are looking for. Rob Brown, the operations manager of the Workers Center, has found not much has improved in the gig economy, though, and complaints remain a constant.   

“The gig economy, part of the world of work, has been rapidly developing a whole new suite of problems to it,” Brown said. “Far faster than labor regulations and enforcement have been able to keep up with it. One of our main lines in the general field has been really pushing for working with regulators, addressing some of the serious questions that come out of it with the evolving elements of the sector.”  

Overall, the Workers’ Center has been pushing for more regulations to stop what Brown considers the abuse of the contractor classification by employers. The organization has also been working with people to try to get them fair compensation because, as Brown has found, gig economy jobs are rife with wage theft as well as rapidly shifting terms and conditions of employment.  

“Part of what the contractor structure of the gig economy does is suppress the worker’s pay, but when a company uses this kind of strategy, they also dodge their obligation to pay workers compensation, unemployment, disability, and payroll taxes that are shifting all social security and Medicare tax onto the worker,” Brown said.  

Brown has found that for ride-hailing drivers, this can be a prominent part of their job structure. Since they are not required to have the same licensure, certification and requirements as taxicab drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers are faced with issues of road safety and uncertainty over the responsibility of being a public transporter. Matt Stupak, a barista at Gimme Coffee, found this to be true when he worked for Uber while living in Boston in 2012.  

“I was told I would be making $20 an hour and more, especially on rush shift,” Stupak said. “I was also told I could use my regular personal vehicle insurance to do the job. Neither of those turned out to be true. A few months after I started with Uber, I got a letter from my insurance carrier [that] because my insurance was not tailored to livery purposes that they’d be dropping me, at which point I stopped driving for Uber.”

Between downtime and delivery, Stupak was making closer to the minimum wage at the time, which was $7.25. The issue with his insurance was the final straw. Since his vehicle was not insured as a commercial vehicle, his policy would have been cancelled. Another issue Stupak had to contend with was the rating system, which placed a high value on drivers’ ratings.

“Even though I only got one rating that was ever below four stars, one week I had a consistent string of four-star ratings that my average got brought down to 4.2,” Stupak said. “After that, I got communication from them saying, ‘Your performance has been suffering. If it doesn’t change, we are going to drop you.’”

Despite most of the focus on Uber and Lyft, they are not alone. The food delivery app Instacart, which is popular in the area, has received some criticism from workers in the area. Robin Pape works with Instacart and has found that since a change in the pay structure, late last year, things haven't felt the same.

“I started in December before the pay changed and I’ve really felt the big difference in how my time is being valued since then,” Pape said. “Where I was easily making $30 an hour, it’s now 40 to 50 percent of that. We’ve dealt with them stealing our tips, we’ve dealt with them. So, right now, their whole thing with the new pay and the $7 minimum—it used to be $10 but also inside that $7 they’re also including the mileage in there. So, if we are delivering 10 miles away, they can get away with paying us $7, and by the time you figure out the mileage, you realize they haven’t paid you anything.”  

Instacart has set delivery fees across the country, and for Ithaca, it was closer to $4 for delivery. However, after the change in the pay structure last year, some bonuses that workers used to receive were added into delivery fees instead of being considered a separate addition. Pape explained just what has changed and found declining wages are becoming a point of contention among workers.  

“You’d get a $3 bump if it was a club order,” she said. “If the order was over $200, then you could receive an extra $5 to $20 depending on how much over. You used to receive an extra $5 for driving over eight miles and then the mileage wasn’t considered at that point. In the last iteration of the change, they took away the item commission and all of the bumps for the club orders [and] the large orders and just stuck us with whatever they decided.”

Prior to this, Pape said, workers had the right to figure out what they were going to make on a certain order, while adding in the bumps. Now, the price remains the same $7 for all orders. Along with this, they had a policy where the more people tipped drivers, the less they had to pay on orders; Instacart publicly acknowledged their controversial tipping policy in a New York Times article. The new system has some additional changes to it, such as a $7 minimum on delivery orders. Pape has found that with a batch system, which can contain multiple orders, she makes the same flat fee, not including a tip.  

“We get a ‘batch,’ and so it’s a $7 minimum per batch and that batch could have two full-service orders,” she said. “Just like it’s a $5 minimum for delivery orders, if you’re delivering only, it’s $5 per batch, but they’ll put three deliveries in that one batch and pay you $5. So, you could be delivering to three different people, driving 15 miles and dropping off 40 bags, but Instacart only pays you $5 because it’s one batch. I don’t think the public really understands the difference between an order and a batch and that a batch can contain multiple orders, and we only get the minimum once.”

One other new feature that Pape has had to contend with is when she allows the system to add her for additional hours. If there are peak boosts, which is a bonus during times when there’s more demand for deliveries, in effect, she will not be eligible for them.

“The system will ask us regularly if we’d like to extend our shift by an hour or two hours or if we’d like to add a shift if we hadn’t been planning on working, and if we allow the system to add us, they don’t put in the peak boosts that corresponds with those hours had we gone in and picked them ourselves,” Pape said. “That’s just another way they ask me to extend and they don’t give me the peak boosts that correspond with that hour that every other shopper is getting because I allowed them to extend me instead of doing it myself.”  

An Instacart spokesperson said that the changes to the system and glitches are due in part to some new technology changes that the company is attempting to make.  

“Since April, we’ve worked to improve shopper earnings through a series of focus groups, ongoing feedback loops, and hyper-local launches of new features that our shoppers have been asking for. We started small by flying out a cross-functional team of engineers, designers, and PMs to spend time with 16 shoppers in Boulder to enlist their feedback for a series of new earnings features. After months of testing and feedback, we announced last month that we’ll be introducing these new earnings features, which are already live in dozens of markets, to all full-service shoppers by the end of the year. These features were created in close collaboration with our Shopper Experience Council, which we formed in early 2018.”

Brown has reasoned out several solutions that could be made to make gig economy jobs easier to live with. For starters, he wants to see the classification of workers as subcontractors eliminated across the board. Brown’s other proposed ideas are based around workers being able to garner more support from their employers on difficulties they may be facing.  

“We would like to see requirements for worker’s compensation, disability and other insurances guaranteed across the sector,” Brown said. “We also think that making sure companies have robust internal complaint systems and support for workers who are dealing with issues such as sexual harassment or other discriminatory conduct, on the basis of the customers, they really need to have these internalized company procedures in place. There’s no reason a personal shopper should take a gig and then be subjected to a tirade about her race or ethnicity from the customer when he or she interacts with them. And then, have the company face no consequences or the case of a driver dealing with sexual harassment. All of these are required to have in place for employees, [and] need to be established as things these companies are subject to and liable for."

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