Could coronavirus push gig workers’ labor fight to the fore?

Despite concern about gig workers’ risk of exposure, the gig economy debate remains in limbo in Albany.

Disruption due to the coronavirus could bring gig workers' classification to the forefront.

Disruption due to the coronavirus could bring gig workers' classification to the forefront. Ascannio/Shutterstock

In a state legislative session packed with debate over new bail reform laws and a whopping $6 billion budget deficit, the issue of how gig economy workers should be classified has not yet risen to the level of the most pressing issues for state lawmakers. 

Could the coronavirus put more emphasis on gig workers – and the long-simmering policy debate over how to protect them? 

As the outbreak worsens across six continents, many are already talking about the impact on gig workers, who may be among the more vulnerable groups. The global outbreak of coronavirus – a highly transmissible respiratory illness – has brought national attention to the fact that many gig workers, like Uber drivers and Postmates delivery cyclists, aren’t able to follow the advice of health professionals and stay home if they feel sick, because they don’t have paid sick leave or paid time off. Drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber, Lyft and Via in New York City do get some paid time off under a recent minimum pay rule passed in the city. But most other gig workers across the state do not. And in the event that more people avoid public transportation or order delivery meals or groceries out of fear of transmission, demand for gig economy services could even grow during the coronavirus crisis.

But while increased coverage and concern about gig workers’ risk for contracting coronavirus may seem like an opportune time for the Legislature to prioritize granting gig workers more labor rights like paid sick leave, the crisis has not yet managed to push the legislative question of how gig workers should be treated to the fore. “I don't think that the coronavirus conversation has at all impacted the conversation around the gig economy and the legislation at the state level right now,” one Albany insider said, adding that other questions over the state’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak are taking precedence. “I think that everybody is really concerned with the testing, the emergency funding and the overall preparedness in New York City, and this has not gotten to the level of impacting the conversation about the gig economy.”

Since last session, the question of whether gig workers should be classified as employees or independent contractors has gained attention in New York, largely because of a new California law classifying most gig workers as employees. That California law, referred to as AB5, has spurred a backlash from the companies that stand to lose from this arrangement, like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, as well as more surprising pushback from groups like freelance writers, who face new restrictions on how often they can write for outlets before being classified as employees.

As that same debate takes shape in New York, multiple bills have been introduced that would tackle the gig worker classification issue, including one that takes a California-like approach. Powerful coalitions – one backed by labor groups, the other by tech companies and business groups – are forming to push their favored approaches. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently jumped into the fray, introducing a budget proposal that punts the gig worker issue to a task force. 

But even without any concerted push linking gig workers’ potential coronavirus risk to the debate over those worker’s labor protections, activists have noted that link. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance – a member of the coalition of labor groups pushing for gig workers to be reclassified as employees – said that they haven’t yet set next dates for rallies or press conferences, but that they will definitely highlight how a potential outbreak in New York speaks to the urgency of granting gig workers more labor protections. “Gig workers and other misclassified workers are more vulnerable both because they don't have paid sick leave, and because they live day to day under poverty wages and with little to no job security,” Desai wrote in an email. “Poverty wages, lack of paid time off, and lack of job security meld into one during a crisis and gig workers and all misclassified workers – with many concentrated in the service sector – are left more vulnerable.”

There’s dwindling interest in Albany in pursuing an approach like California’s AB5, because of the cascade of bad press that the law has received since going into effect earlier this year. But for now, even if the state did pass legislation introduced by state Sen. Robert Jackson and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, which like California’s law would classify most gig workers as employees instead of independent contractors, that new classification wouldn’t necessarily mean that those workers would be able to take time off if they’re experiencing symptoms of coronavirus. While New York City has a paid sick leave policy requiring most employers to provide paid sick time to employees, the state has not yet passed such a policy – though a similar mandatory paid sick leave policy is part of Cuomo’s budget proposal. Cuomo, incidentally, recently amended that budget proposal to also apply to workers quarantined because of coronavirus, requiring employers to pay for that time and keep workers’ jobs safe. 

Since the coronavirus outbreak has worsened across most of the globe, companies including Uber and Lyft have sent notices to their drivers telling them to take precautions like washing their hands to avoid contracting the virus. The companies have not, however, offered paid sick days in response to coronavirus. 

There is another way gig workers in New York could potentially get paid time off. While tech companies and business groups like DoorDash and Uber are pushing vehemently against reclassifying their workers as employees, they’ve floated support for a few alternatives, including a portable benefits package. This approach would retain gig workers’ status as independent contractors, but set up a fund paid into by some combination of companies, workers and consumers, to draw from to pay for benefits like sick leave and health insurance.

That option is still on the table for tech companies, but for now, the focus is on Cuomo’s budget proposal to create a task force to come up with its own approach. Under Cuomo’s budget proposal, a nine-person task force representing interested parties including tech and labor, would make legislative recommendations on gig workers’ wages, classification, health protections and benefits. If the task force failed to present those recommendations by May 1, however, the state Department of Labor would be given authority to put in place its own regulations. 


Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that ride-hailing drivers in New York City receive paid time off under a new city rule.