Re­volt of the gig work­ers: Rage reaches tip­ping point

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Carolyn Said

Gig work­ers are fight­ing back.

By their name, you might think in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors are a mot­ley crew — ge­o­graph­i­cally scat­tered, with er­ratic pay­checks and tat­tered safety nets. They re­port to face­less soft­ware sub­rou­tines rather than hu­man bosses. Most gig work­ers toil alone as they ferry pas­sen­gers, de­liver food and per­form er­rands.

But in re­cent weeks, some of these app-wield­ing work­ers have joined forces to ef­fect changes by the multi­bil­lion­dol­lar com­pa­nies and pow­er­ful al­go­rithms that con­trol their work­ing con­di­tions.

Last week, In­stacart shop­pers wrung pay­ment con­ces­sions from the gro­cery de­liv­ery com­pany, which had been us­ing cus­tomer tips to

sub­si­dize what it paid them. Af­ter out­cries by work­ers on so­cial me­dia, in news re­ports and through on­line pe­ti­tions, San Fran­cisco’s In­stacart said it had been “mis­guided.” It now adds tips on top of its base pay — as most cus­tomers and shop­pers thought they should be — and will retroac­tively com­pen­sate work­ers who were stiffed on tips.

New York this year be­came the first U.S. city to im­ple­ment a min­i­mum wage for Uber and Lyft, which now must pay driv­ers at least $17.22 an hour af­ter ex­penses ($26.51 be­fore ex­penses). Lyft, which sued over the re­quire­ment, last week gave in to driver pres­sure to im­ple­ment it.

For two years, driv­ers held ral­lies, re­leased re­search, sent thou­sands of let­ters and calls to city of­fi­cials, and gath­ered 16,000 pe­ti­tion sig­na­ture among them­selves. The In­de­pen­dent Driv­ers Guild, a union-af­fil­i­ated group that rep­re­sents New York ride-hail driv­ers and spear­headed the cam­paign, pre­dicted per-driver pay boosts of up to $9,600 a year.

That fol­lows some other hard-fought worker cru­sades, such as when they per­suaded Uber to fi­nally add tip­ping to its app in 2017, a move trig­gered by sev­eral phe­nom­ena: a string of cor­po­rate scan­dals, the fact that ri­val Lyft had of­fered tip­ping from the get-go, and a class-ac­tion law­suit seek­ing em­ploy­ment sta­tus for work­ers.

“We’ll prob­a­bly start to see more gig work­ers or­ga­niz­ing as they re­al­ize that enough neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity for the com­pa­nies can make some­thing change,” said Alexan­drea Ravenelle, an as­sis­tant so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at New York’s Mercy Col­lege and au­thor of “Hus­tle and Gig: Strug­gling and Sur­viv­ing in the Shar­ing Econ­omy.” “But com­pa­nies will keep try­ing to push the en­ve­lope to pay work­ers as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.”

The cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, with tech gi­ants such as Face­book and Google on hot seats over pri­vacy, abuse of cus­tomer data and other is­sues, has helped the work­ers’ quests.

“We’re at a mo­ment of reck­on­ing for tech com­pa­nies,” said Alex Rosen­blat, a tech­nol­ogy ethno­g­ra­pher at New York’s Data & So­ci­ety Re­search In­sti­tute and au­thor of “Uber­land: How Al­go­rithms Are Rewrit­ing the Rules of Work.” “There’s a tech­lash, a broader un­der­stand­ing that tech com­pa­nies have to be held ac­count­able as po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions rather than neu­tral forces for good.”

The cli­mate also in­cludes more con­sumer aware­ness of la­bor is­sues in the on-de­mand econ­omy. “Peo­ple are re­al­iz­ing that you don’t just jump in an Uber and don’t have to think about who’s driv­ing you and what they make,” Ravenelle said. “There’s a lot more at­ten­tion to gig work­ers’ plight.”

In­stacart cus­tomers were dis­mayed to dis­cover that their tips were not go­ing to work­ers on top of their pay as a re­ward for good ser­vice.

Sage Wil­son, a spokesman for Work­ing Washington, a la­bor-backed group that helped with the In­stacart shop­pers’ cam­paign, said many more gig work­ers have emerged with sto­ries of sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences on other apps.

“Pay trans­parency re­ally seems to be an is­sue across many of these plat­forms,” he said. “I al­most won­der if it’s part of the rea­son why these com­pa­nies are build­ing black box al­go­rith­mic pay mod­els in the first place (so) you might not even know right away if you got a pay cut un­til you start see­ing the weekly to­tals trend­ing down.”

Cases in point: DoorDash and Ama­zon also ri­fle the tip jar to sub­si­dize con­trac­tors’ base pay, as In­stacart did. DoorDash de­fended this, say­ing its pay model “pro­vides trans­parency, con­sis­tency, and pre­dictabil­ity” and has in­creased both sat­is­fac­tion and re­ten­tion of its “Dash­ers.”

But Kris­ten An­der­son of Con­cord, a so­cial worker who works part-time for DoorDash to help with stu­dent loans, said that was not her ex­pe­ri­ence. Her pay dropped dra­mat­i­cally af­ter DoorDash started ap­pro­pri­at­ing tips in 2017, she said. “Orig­i­nally it was worth my time and now it’s not,” she said. “It’s frus­trat­ing.”

In­stacart work­ers had sim­i­lar feel­ings — and turned them into con­certed ac­tions.

“This has been a mad­den­ing, frus­trat­ing and, at times, in­cred­i­bly dis­heart­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Debi LaBell of San Car­los, who does week­end work for In­stacart on top of a full-time job. “When I first started do­ing In­stacart, I loved getting in my car to head to my first shop. These past few months, it has taken ev­ery­thing that I have to get mo­ti­vated enough to do my shift.”

Be­fore each shop­ping trip, she hand-wrote notes to all her cus­tomers ex­plain­ing the tips is­sue. She and other shop­pers con­gre­gated on­line both to vent and to or­ga­nize.

Her hope now is that In­stacart will in­vite shop­pers like her to hear their ex­pe­ri­ences and ideas.

There’s po­etic jus­tice in the fact that the same in­ter­net that al­lows gig com­pa­nies to cre­ate widely dis­persed mar­ket­places pro­vided gig work­ers space to find sol­i­dar­ity with one an­other.

“It’s like the in­ter­net taketh and giveth,” said Eric Lloyd, an at­tor­ney at the law firm Sey­farth Shaw, which rep­re­sents man­age­ment, in­clud­ing some gig com­pa­nies he wouldn’t name, in la­bor cases. “The in­ter­net gave rise to this whole new econ­omy, giv­ing busi­nesses a way to build re­ally in­no­va­tive mod­els, and it’s given work­ers new ways to ad­vance their rights.”

For Cal­i­for­nia gig work­ers, even more changes are on the hori­zon in the wake of a ground-break­ing Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court de­ci­sion last April that re­de­fined when to clas­sify work­ers as em­ploy­ees ver­sus in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors.

Gig com­pa­nies, la­bor lead­ers and law­mak­ers are hold­ing meet­ings in Sacra­mento to thrash out leg­isla­tive re­sponses to the Dy­namex de­ci­sion. Op­tions could range from more work­ers getting em­ploy­ment sta­tus to gig com­pa­nies of­fer­ing flex­i­ble ben­e­fits. What­ever hap­pens, it’s sure to up­end the sta­tus quo.

Rather than piece­meal en­force­ment through lit­i­ga­tion, ar­bi­tra­tion and var­i­ous govern­ment agen­cies such as un­em­ploy­ment agen­cies, it makes sense to come up with over­all stan­dards, Rosen­blat said.

“There’s a big need for com­pre­hen­sive stan­dards with an un­der­stand­ing of all the trade­offs,” she said. “We’re at a tip­ping point for change.”

Yalonda M. James / The Chron­i­cle

Debi LaBell of San Car­los, who does week­end work for In­stacart on top of a full-time job, has or­ga­nized with oth­ers on­line over the tips is­sue.

Yalonda M. James / The Chron­i­cle

Debi LaBell of San Car­los had been dis­heart­ened to see In­stacart use cus­tomer tips to sub­si­dize what it paid her.

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