Opinion: Gig workers deserve a level playing field

One-third of gig workers do not have enough money to pay their bills, despite often working more than 40 hours per week, according to a new survey.

New York City Council members rally with gig workers outside City Hall on April 22, 2022.

New York City Council members rally with gig workers outside City Hall on April 22, 2022. John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

“As much as they say there’s not going to be retaliation, there is. They know what they can get away with.”

This is what one gig worker told us regarding his experience reporting labor violations. We interviewed him as part of a pair of studies released this week, which surveyed over 400 independent contractors and convening worker focus groups in Western Queens. Our reports were conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies in partnership with the Consortium for Worker Education’s Astoria Worker Project. These reports represent the largest neighborhood-focused study of the gig economy to date. Our results show a crisis for gig workers and an urgent need to provide resources and protections for this growing workforce.

Our survey shines a light on the anti-worker misuse of the independent contractor classification. It shows that while some workers experience the flexibility and freedoms of gig work, most independent contractor working arrangements unlawfully resemble a traditional employer-employee relationship, with workers lacking control over their hours, rate of pay or work structure.

This misclassification functions as a convenient mechanism for unscrupulous employers to subvert labor law and unionization efforts, shift tax liabilities onto workers and deprive them of benefits. The number of independent contractors grew rapidly during the pandemic. Today, roughly 10% of all workers in New York state are misclassified as independent contractors.

While gig work is often touted as a convenient way to earn extra cash, 65% of survey respondents reported that it was their sole source of income and they routinely work in excess of 40 hours a week. And for many, even that is not enough to pay the bills. One-third said they lacked confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent or mortgage, with half relying on public assistance.

Over half of respondents reported filing a labor complaint. Focus group conversations revealed a broad sentiment that when it came to getting justice at their workplace, the deck was stacked against them. “There needs to be somebody workers can go to to voice their needs, independent of HR,” said one worker. Unsurprisingly, immigrant and undocumented workers were found most likely to fall victim to predatory labor practices, a burgeoning issue with more migrants entering the workforce.

What can be done? We are currently seeing bold organizing initiatives to tackle these issues. In New York, Los Deliveristas Unidos and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance have won minimum pay rates and other protections for delivery and for-hire vehicle drivers. In 2022, the Consortium for Worker Education launched the Astoria Worker Project, focused on bringing workers, unions, and community-based organizations together to provide education and build community power, with the intention to expand this work across the city. The Astoria Worker Project now offers classes in building worker cooperatives, empowering gig workers to gain control over their economic lives as an alternative to the exploitative gig economy.

Our survey revealed great interest among participants in accessing training and educational services, including classes on digital literacy, workplace rights and how to effectively run a business. Other respondents expressed enthusiasm for subsidized daycare that would afford them a more predictable workweek schedule and permit greater opportunities to leave the gig economy. Nearly all were interested in free legal or tax services to deal with the added work-related expenses incurred in independent contracting.

Many of these services are already provided by non-profit organizations. What is clear, however, is that more must be done to provide these services at the scale and specificity required to meet the needs of gig workers. Our city has always been looked to as a place of opportunity, but for a growing number of workers in an expanding sector of our economy, this opportunity is slipping away. It’s time for legislators, unions and service providers to join together to deliver for gig workers.

Lina Moe is Associate Director of the Economic and Fiscal Policies Unit at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. Rebecca Lurie is the founder of the Community and Worker Ownership Project at the CUNY School for Labor and Urban Studies. Andrés Bernal Is a lecturer at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and the City College School of Global and Civic Leadership.

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