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With More Americans in the Gig Economy, Concerns Grows Over Worker Safety

The family of a 19-year-old delivery worker did not qualify for any kind of worker’s compensation death benefits after their son was killed by a dump truck earlier this year.

Antawani Wright-Davis, who worked as a cyclist for DoorDash, an app that hires workers as independent contractors, died in Massachusetts while on a food delivery run. With the emergence of the gig economy, workers’ rights advocates — along with some state departments of labor — are sounding the alarm about employees who are required to sign agreements that free their employers from keeping them safe.

Businesses in the gig economy, including Uber and Lyft, are now facing the consequences of offering flexible schedules with the bare minimum of employer responsibilities, says Jessica Martinez, director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Those who work in the gig economy are making money but missing out on other standard benefits of having jobs: health care primarily but also paid sick leave and worker’s compensation,” she tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “It’s essentially the Tinder economy. When a temp worker is done with his or her shift, the boss swipes left and claims to have no further obligation.”

Excusing companies form any liability is worrisome in an industry that ranks among the most dangerous in America. Taxi drivers are killed on the job at a rate five times higher than the average U.S. worker, according to the National Employment Law Project. In fact, transportation accidents accounted for nearly half of on-the-job deaths across all industries, according to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Young workers are especially vulnerable since they are attracted to the flexibility of the gig economy, Martinez explains.

“These are also the people who are least used to employment and have little experience with job hazards for their work,” she says. Temps are reluctant to call attention to safety issues. They have a fear of getting replaced or losing their jobs compared to permanent employees.”

The underlying principle of worker’s compensation is for employers to have some responsibility for providing insurance benefits, regardless of fault when workers are injured on the job. In return, employers are shielded from lawsuits for work-related injuries or illnesses. The nearly 80 year old system has since become a model around the developed world.

Approximately 130 million American workers are protected by worker’s compensation, according to NELP, but many businesses in the gig economy do not provide it because they classify their workers as “independent contractors.” This maneuver lets the company reduce labor costs since it doesn’t have to pay contractors the same level of benefits as traditional employees.

In effect, the companies make employees – or the general public – responsible for the costs of work-related injuries.

Martinez does note that there are laws to protect temp workers, and the burden can be imposed on the temp agency that helps them find work. “It’s also important that temp workers know that their temp agency is responsible for worker’s compensation if they are injured, and that both the work site employer and temp agency have shared responsibilities for their safety,” she says.

However, the majority of the estimated 60 million independent workers in the U.S.do not receive employee benefits, according to a 2016 report by McKinsey Global Institute. Employers claim that keeping their workers as independent contractors helps retain the flexibility of their business model.

“There’s a real concern that if they offer benefits packages towards their workers that these workers would then be classified as employees,” Rich Meneghello, a lawyer who represents employers, told NPR last year.

Consequently, categorizing these workers as independent contractors means that many workers inadvertently sign away their rights.

“Some, if not most, agreements do not allow workers to pursue civil action if their rights are violated and must go into arbitration,” she says. “In some states, there’s no really legal legislation that protects temp workers.”

With technology creating more and more opportunities for growth in the gig economy, Martinez predicts that several states will step up efforts to pass legislation to protect the rights of independent workers.

Lawmakers in New York and Washington state are already pursuing legislation that would imposes a fee on gig economy transactions to create an independent pool of money that provides benefits for workers, she says. Lawmakers in Congress have also introduced a bill that would fund pilot programs for portable benefits.

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