Precarious at Work, Precarious in Health

The coronavirus is making painfully clear how difficult life is for underpaid workers in this country—from a lack of paid sick leave to inadequate or non-existent employer-sponsored health insurance. “Gig” workers who are paid low wages, in particular, are in an especially precarious situation. We have the opportunity to change this.

“Gig” workers—who are often wrongly classified as independent contractors because many are not, by any stretch of the imagination, in business for themselves—are excluded from nearly all workplace protections and benefits for employees, such as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, employer-sponsored health insurance, and coverage under minimum wage and overtime laws. The lack of benefits has real consequences for these workers, who cannot collect unemployment insurance if work dries up because of the coronavirus. They also cannot obtain workers’ compensation for illness-related expenses if they contract the coronavirus at work. And, in almost all of the few states and localities that require employers to provide paid sick and family leave, “gig” workers are shut out of this benefit as well.

This lack of protections and benefits disproportionately hurts people of color. Black and Latinx workers are overrepresented in “gig” work on apps like Uber, Handy, Postmates, and Amazon Flex. Black workers are 12.1 percent of the workforce, but 23 percent of in-person app workers, and Latinx workers are 16.6 percent of the workforce, but 18.5 percent of in-person app workers. Combined, Black and Latinx workers comprise less than 29 percent of the workforce, but almost 42 percent of workers on apps like Uber, Handy, Postmates, and Amazon Flex.

Even worse, many “gig” workers are at increased risk of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus. The nature of many of these jobs places workers in substantial direct contact with others — from drivers transporting strangers around, to people delivering food from restaurants to homes, to workers doing in-home tasks. Delivery drivers, in particular, are likely to perform critical services for people who are sick or quarantined.

The coronavirus has shown that the heightened risks for “gig” workers and the gaps in our policies endanger us all. How can we expect workers living paycheck-to-paycheck—with no access to paid sick leave or health insurance—to stay home when they’re feeling sick or go to the doctor to get tested for the virus? How can we expect workers to abide by quarantine and social distancing guidelines when their ability to provide for their families depends on them not doing so?  Why must workers face the false choice of working and facing the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus or staying home to care for themselves or family members and falling behind on rent or going hungry?

How can we expect workers living paycheck-to-paycheck—with no access to paid sick leave or health insurance—to stay home when they’re feeling sick or go to the doctor to get tested for the virus?

These risks also expose the fallacies in the arguments around “gig” work. Companies like Uber, Postmates and Amazon Flex that call their workers independent contractors argue that, because these workers can set their own work schedules, this flexibility must come at the expense of the benefits and protections that come with employee status.  But true flexibility is the ability to set your own schedule—for example, to take time off because you are sick or to care for loves ones—without a drop in a pay. Flexibility is illusory without financial security.

Congress just introduced a bill that would provide emergency paid leave to any worker—including workers labeled as independent contractors—affected by the coronavirus, allowing people who are sick or who must care for sick family members or children whose schools have closed to self-quarantine. While this bill is critical to halting the spread of the virus and providing financial support to families, it is only a temporary fix that does not resolve the underlying problem: the extreme precarity of low-wage “gig” workers. We need legislation that ensures that “gig” workers have the same baseline set of rights and protections to which all other people who perform work for someone else are entitled.

Public health emergencies like coronavirus are a reminder that our society is only as safe and healthy as its most vulnerable members. We must ensure our policies meet the needs of all workers, families, and communities, including people working in all-too-precarious “gig” jobs.

Back to Top of Page