California Likely to Pass New Protections for App-Based Employees
Is there really an app for everything? We talk about digital culture having “revolutionized” and even “democratized” many aspects of modern life. We can do our taxes, order takeout and kitchen staples, and hail a cab just by tapping a few times on the slab of glass in our pocket.
But how can apps “democratize” much of anything — especially how labor is performed and compensated — when the new gatekeepers and landlords look and behave exactly like the old ones? Is technology, and especially “app culture,” an open gateway to new opportunities and economic participation for us all, or is it merely reverse-engineering all of the same failed systems and assumptions we’ve been trying to get away from this whole time?
Lawmakers in California have answered by advancing a progressive bill that would help ensure “app-based companies” are giving their employees a fair shake.
What Does California’s Bill Seek to Do?
California wants to completely rethink the “gig economy” within the state through a bill called AB-5. It has already passed the State Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor. What’s most remarkable is how deceptively simple this change is:
Employers must treat all their workers as employees. Full stop.
In California alone, this change will affect the lives of more than one million workers — and it could well spread to other onlooking states.
Uber and Lyft, and companies like them, are the ones in the crosshairs here. These two have seen the writing on the wall for some time now and have made every lobbying attempt possible to land themselves exemptions to these up-and-coming rule changes.
In short, California wishes to address the wide and growing criticism that companies operating under the gig economy model have made their employees’ lives and livelihoods far too unstable, compared with the relative job security, clearly defined benefits and government protections that “actual” employees have been able to count on for whole generations thanks to labor unions and other forms of collective mobilization.
The Brookings Institute finds that around 15.5 million workers in the U.S. have “gis” and other “alternative arrangements” as their primary source of income. These are 15.5 million workers, in other words, who are 90% disenfranchised as employed persons.
Contract-based, app-based and “at-will” employees may be fired for any reason at any time. They are not eligible for unemployment insurance or the minimum wage or even overtime pay for overtime worked. And until California (very) recently addressed this shortcoming, gig economy workers couldn’t unionize, either. Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign AB-5 into law, which would cause another paradigm shift in California by allowing gig workers to band together and engage in collective bargaining for fairer wages and better conditions.
Piece by piece, California is assembling a much fairer social contract for employers and workers to abide by: one which seeks to reverse many years of worsening conditions and rising levels of financial and economic instability among Americans who aren’t traditionally employed.
Where Does App-Based Company Culture Fall Short?
California’s new bill is a potential answer to a rash of problems made possible by app-based company culture. Apps gave rise to the gig economy, and the gig economy has given rise to an entire generation that has no idea what a fair deal or worker protections look like.
We are building America’s economy in the image of Silicon Valley. We are sprinting headlong toward, potentially, the very end of employee dignity in America. This wasn’t a foregone conclusion of technology “in general.”
But it was definitely inevitable for a technology-obsessed country that hasn’t substantially updated its social contract since the New Deal and hasn’t raised its minimum wage since 2009 (at which time it rose from $6.55 to a slightly-less-insulting $7.25), and saw fit to withhold from gig workers (not to mention restaurant waitstaff) even the quantum of dignity that a six or seven dollar wage provides.
Take Google, for example. Do we take Google for granted, or is it the other way around?
Google now has more contract-based and temporary workers than actual full-time employees. This means, of course, that most of Google’s workforce does not qualify for even the most basic worker protections and benefits. Remember that Google is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. — a company which in 2018 earned $39.27 billion in revenue. That’s $1,245 in earnings every second of every year.
Can’t Alphabet, Inc. afford employees? What do they spend their winnings on instead? Bean bag chairs and slides in the office impress seven-year-olds from time to time, but they don’t help adults keep food on their table.
This company can afford employees. But it chooses not to. And it chooses not to while simultaneously shifting tens of billions of dollars at a time to offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes. There are layers upon layers of theft going on here, orchestrated by Alphabet, Google and others, against the American people.
Does Progressive Policy in America Always Have to Start With California?
Ride-sharing companies aren’t the only one abusing the system they, themselves, helped design. Courier services like DoorDash got away with literally skimming customer tips intended to go to their drivers. And they only stopped because people got wise.
It’s not a surprise that California is dominating this conversation. They were also one of the first states to recognize the good that legal marijuana can do, and they (until Trump entered the picture) were defiantly raising the bar for automotive emissions in an age of anthropogenic climate collapse.
Other states will need to keep up this momentum, however. None of these fights is going to be won easily.
So is there really an app for everything? What about seizing the means of production and building a better world for all who take part? Because that’s what technology is literally for, or else there’s no point in pursuing it. Until the rest of the states in the Union catch on to what California is attempting here, this brave new digital world of ours is going to continue to look steadily more like a prison, rather than a gateway to infinite opportunity, with each passing year we let technologists and corporatists write the rules.