LOS ANGELES – A UCLA study published Monday found that 80% of gig workers cannot meet household expenses and nearly half received no personal protective equipment from gig companies during the pandemic, worsening conditions for an already struggling segment of the workforce.
The crisis points to a need for structural change in the industry, according to 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.
The study, which examined the current conditions of gig work in California in the wake of the pandemic, could add to the public debate surrounding Assembly Bill 5 and Proposition 22, two contentious political issues that will shape the future of gig work in California.
Based on 302 worker surveys, researchers found that three-quarters of respondents said gig work was their primary source of income, yet half of workers had to stop working because of COVID-19, while 70% of those who kept working said their hours were reduced due to 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,” said Tyler Breisacher, who delivers meals in San Francisco with DoorDash. “Caviar at one point offered hand sanitizer for free, but you had to pay shipping — that’s not free.”
Breisacher worked at the delivery service Caviar until its merger into DoorDash in August.
“At one point, Caviar was a little better than DoorDash in how much it paid,” he said. “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 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 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,” said Ra Criscitiello, deputy director of research for the health care workers union.
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.”
The researchers said they hope the 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.”