Recently, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta told a Chamber of Commerce audience: “I think ‘gig’ [economy] understates what so many Americans around the country are doing… Technology has really empowered the individual to reach a global market. And that’s not a gig, that’s entrepreneurship.”
Acosta’s remarks are the latest in a long list of signals from the Trump administration that are out of touch with the realities faced by millions of people. These signals—among them policies which roll back overtime pay rules and take tips away from employees—have been the opposite of empowering: they actually make it harder for people to care for their families and maintain their economic security.
This is especially true for those Americans whom our economic structures already disfavor: women, people of color, and people in low-paying industries, all of for whom the gig economy is not an entrepreneurial source of empowerment, but a cause of insecurity. That’s why it’s critical that we focus on policy solutions for the gig economy that support the people who actually work in it.
One place to start? Paid family and medical leave.
I know from personal experience just how difficult it can be to work in the gig economy without paid leave. When I became pregnant as a freelancer in Brooklyn in 2013, I was not covered by New York’s Temporary Disability Insurance law, which many moms relied on to cover a small portion of time to care before New York enacted paid family leave. As a result, I took unpaid time to care for my newborn.
Not only do too many people lack paid family and medical leave: today, more and more people also have non-traditional work arrangements.
My experience is far from unique; in fact, for most people, it’s still the norm. Not only do too many people lack paid family and medical leave: today, more and more people also have non-traditional work arrangements. In the last decade alone, the percentage of people working in the “alternative” workforce—for temp agencies, on-call, contract, independent, and freelance—rose from 10.1 to 15.8 percent, according to a recent study.
Some people are turning to these jobs to help make their lives work, exchanging stable benefits packages and future earnings for greater time, control, and flexibility. And some, in fact, are entrepreneurs, as Secretary Acosta suggested.
But many more enter the gig economy not by choice, but of necessity. Employees are being replaced by independent contractors and given the chance to regain their job only through agreeing to new contracts with lower wages, fewer benefits, and less stability. Others are being misclassified as independent contractors—sometimes innocuously, but often purposefully, because it saves companies from being on the hook for providing health care, retirement benefits, and paid sick days.
The lack of benefits and job security characteristic of independent work is only half the story, of course. The other half is America’s well-documented inadequacy in guaranteeing paid family leave. The United States remains the only wealthy country in the world not to provide paid leave to its citizens, even as the issue has gained growing media attention, public support, and legislative approval in recent years.
This momentum behind paid leave, and the growth of the gig economy, make it even more important that we focus on the fact that paid leave laws, if structured properly, can be well-aligned with the future of work—including gig work. By covering everyone regardless of whether they are classified as “employees,” these policies offer an important benefit for contractors, those who work for themselves, and even those who are misclassified as contractors.
Consider New York’s recent paid family leave law, which took effect January 1, 2018. Not only are full-time domestic workers, like nannies, house cleaners, and home health aides, covered by the law, self-employed and independent contractors can also opt in to the program, ensuring that no one’s ability to care for an ill loved one or newborn is determined by the size of their employer, their job type or, (as was my case) the year one gets pregnant.
Of the five other states that have passed family and medical leave laws, three—California, Washington State, and Washington, D.C.—also make their policies available regardless of employment status, allowing people who have non-standard employment situations to opt into the program, through small voluntary payroll contributions. New Jersey and Rhode Island should follow suit, and update their existing programs so that everyone can afford to take the time they need when they need it, regardless of the type of job they hold.
In addition, legislation introduced at the federal level by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the FAMILY Act, would guarantee twelve weeks of paid leave to care for new children, as well as for the serious illness or military leave of a family member. Just as people with alternate work arrangements pay into both employer and employee taxes to help with their retirement, the FAMILY Act, because it is based on social security, means that everyone working in the gig economy would be a part of the program.
To be sure, political realities in Washington, D.C. mean that passage of the FAMILY Act is still years away, even as an increasing number of lawmakers from across the partisan divide support a federal solution. In the absence of such legislation, cities and states must continue to step in and assume their historical role as laboratories of democracy, as New York did in enacting the strongest paid leave program in the country to date.
Moreover, the private and nonprofit sectors—while not a long-term solution to legislative inaction—should continue to lead the way in offering paid leave benefits. Following companies like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Google, businesses are realizing that paid leave isn’t just the right thing to do, but the right thing to do for their bottom line. New, hybrid programs designed to help nontraditional workers, such as the portable benefits partnership announced by Uber and Service Employees International Union last month, are particularly promising, given that four out of five people still do not have paid leave through their employer.
Yet even with the progress in the private and nonprofit sectors, people working in the gig economy are too often left out.
Yet even with the progress in the private and nonprofit sectors, people working in the gig economy are too often left out. Today, the person contracted to clean the offices at Apple headquarters does not have the same supports as the programmer who makes the iPhone. As a country, we should not accept the notion that one person is prohibited from receiving paid time to care simply because her paycheck says “ABM Cleaning Services,” and the other’s, “Apple, Inc.”
The gig economy is here to stay. It’s time to ensure that paid family and medical leave is here to stay, too—and can follow every individual, from job to job, gig to gig, contract to contract.
This commentary was published in partnership with A Better Balance, a nonprofit organization that fights to expand choices for men and women so they may care for their families without sacrificing their economic security.