Dangerously Wrong: How the Gig Economy is a Structurally Racist System of Work 

In a virtual briefing before Congressional staff on March 4, 2021, “Centering Workers of Color to Ensure Essential Rights in the App-Based Economy,” former Lyft driver and organizer Cherri Murphy explained how Lyft’s promise of flexibility lured her into the app-based, or “gig” economy in 2017.  

“I was in my last year of my master’s in divinity and beginning to start my doctoral program and back in 2017, Lyft seemed like a godsend,” Murphy said. “They advertised a job which would feature flexibility that would allow me to make money while also loaning me a rental.”  

Murphy noted she was in desperate need of both a car and that “so-called flexibility, so she started driving for the company—this was the “gig” that would be her primary source of income for the next three years.  

Things didn’t turn out like Murphy had hoped.  

Rather than providing flexibility while she worked on her masters and PhD, for Murphy, driving for Lyft came with the kinds of unsustainable working conditions, grossly inadequate pay, and mounting debt that many initially drawn to the app-based economy experience once they are in its hooks.  

As NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon put it in the same briefing, “today’s app-based or gig economy is frequently dressed up in talk about modern innovation’ and the 21st century of work. But, in reality, this type of precarious, contingent work is nothing new.”  

Dixon pointed out, crucially, that workers of color have always been heavily concentrated in these kinds of exploitative industries, which makes it that much more disturbing that companies like Uber and Lyft claim to be on the side of racial justice in their marketing. 

Dixon and Murphy’s testimony, along with that of Partnership for Working Families Executive Director Lauren Jacobs and other app-based workers and organizers of color, provides a compelling argument for Congress to rein in the abuses of app-based corporations and to support the organizing of people like Murphy.  

As Jacobs remarked, “Something is dangerously wrong in the gig economy.” 

Since their beginning, gig companies have lobbied for their exploitative business model to be enshrined into law in states across the country, including by spending more than $200 million to rid themselves of basic employer obligations in California with the state’s Proposition 22. Now, the app-based giants are pursuing the same free pass to exploit workers in federal law, with a “third worker category” that threatens to further secure their ability to deny protections to racialized workforce nationwide 

“Something is dangerously wrong in the gig economy.”

Our coalition calls on our representatives in Congress to reject this horrendous proposal and to ensure that people who work for a company through an app have the same guarantee of a living wage and other core employment protections as workers who punch the clock in a stationary workplaceThis is a racial justice issue—Congress must ensure that this largely people of color labor force has the same protections under the law as other workers.  

As big as this industry has become, app-based corporations and policymakers can’t afford to ignore the growing movement of workers coming together and fighting back, which was so powerfully on display in the March briefing. Learn more about their experiences in app-based work and their fight by watching key moments from the briefing now.  

Watch the highlights of this Congressional briefing.

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Rachel Nass

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