UCLA Labor Center

Gig Workers Hit Hard During COVID-19, Worker Ownership Could Help the Sector

10/19/2020

LOS ANGELES – A UCLA study published today showed that 80% of gig workers can’t meet household expenses and nearly half received no personal protective equipment (PPE) from gig companies during the pandemic, worsening conditions for already-struggling gig workers. The crisis points to a need for structural change in the industry. The study contributes to the public debate surrounding Assembly Bill (AB)5 and Proposition 22, two contentious political issues that will shape the future of gig work in California.

The report, a collaboration between the UCLA Labor Center, a unit of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, examined the current conditions of gig work in California in the wake of the pandemic.

Based on 302 worker surveys, researchers found that three quarters of respondents said that gig work was their primary source of income, yet half of workers had to stop working because of COVID-19. 70% of those who kept working said their hours were reduced during the pandemic.

“We’ve known for a long time that gig work is precarious and unsustainable for workers, despite whatever the big tech platforms might say to the contrary,” said Brian Justie, report co-author and researcher at the UCLA Labor Center. “This study makes crystal clear just how vulnerable gig workers are in moments of crisis, and how unprepared these companies are to protect the workforce they so clearly depend upon.”

Three-quarters of respondents indicated the companies were doing little to nothing to protect them from COVID-19. Nearly half received no PPE from their companies, and 95% said their companies would not reimburse for PPE expenses.

“Companies were making everyone pay for masks and hand sanitizer. Caviar at one point offered hand sanitizer for free, but you had to pay shipping–that’s not free,” notes Tyler Breisacher, who delivers meals in San Francisco with DoorDash. Breisacher worked at Caviar until its merger into DoorDash in August. “At one point, Caviar was a little better than DoorDash in how much it paid. But as these companies keep buying each other up, we’ve lost what little ability we had to make more money. Honestly, I would love to see a model where the whole company is owned by the workers.”

The report also evaluated a California legislative proposal called the Cooperative Economy Act (CEA) that would introduce worker ownership into the gig economy, fundamentally restructuring the relationship between workers and platforms like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart. Worker-owned models are being supported by labor unions and advocacy groups because unlike traditional firms or gig companies, they are collectively owned and democratically controlled by workers.

“SEIU-UHW is investing in cooperatives because this model builds power and a voice for workers, where they are not only stakeholders but also majority shareholders of the businesses where they work,” explained Ra Criscitiello, Deputy Director of Research for SEIU-UHW.

The study presented case studies of worker ownership across industries, including challenges and benefits, as well as issues that workers highlighted in their reactions to worker ownership in the gig sector. “What’s clear is that gig workers are tired of being underpaid and urgently need increased income,” said Saba Waheed, report co-author and Research Director at the UCLA Labor Center. “But they also shared an urgent need for a more predictable and transparent pay structure, reliable schedules, and guaranteed benefits. They want fairness in the app system, including around pay and tips, deactivation, and customer reviews.”

Researchers hope this study provides timely data and information at a critical moment for the future of the gig economy in California. “The gig economy is at a crossroad and we have a real opportunity to reshape the sector,” said Tia Koonse, report co-author and Legal and Policy Research Manager at the UCLA Labor Center. “We recommend the state listen to the voices of workers and enforce employment classification laws, as well as foster worker-led cooperative models.”

Download the report:  http://bit.ly/GIGworkers

**Please contact Citlalli Chávez-Nava at citlallichavez@ucla.edu to schedule interviews with report authors.**

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The UCLA Labor Center believes that a public university belongs to the people and should advance quality education and employment for all. Every day we bring together workers, students, faculty, and policymakers to address the most critical issues facing working people today. Our research, education, and policy work lifts industry standards, creates jobs that are good for communities, and strengthens immigrant rights, especially for students and youth. The UCLA Labor Center is housed in the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to the study, teaching, and discussion of labor and employment issues at UCLA.

The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) is a healthcare justice union of more than 97,000 healthcare workers, patients, and healthcare consumers united to ensure affordable, accessible, high-quality care for all Californians, provided by valued and respected healthcare workers.