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UCLA study examines COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on gig workers

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the gig economy, according to data gathered by a UCLA study. (Ben Brill/Graphics editor)

By Maanas Oruganti

Nov. 2, 2020 4:23 p.m.

A UCLA report recommended companies give their workers greater control over management after examining the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on gig workers.

The report, published in October, stated the pandemic has exacerbated many existing problems such as wage theft, as well as illegal violations of worker health and safety protections for gig workers. Giving more power to workers’ voices and prioritizing their benefits would help workers, the report added.

Gig work, sometimes called non-traditional work arrangements, encompasses many types of employment, like working as a driver for Uber or being a freelancer, said Lucero Herrera, a senior research analyst at the UCLA Labor Center.

The UCLA Labor Center collaborated with the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West to conduct more than 300 worker surveys in California and examine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the gig economy over 10 months.

The study found about 83% of workers who quit their gig work during the pandemic did so out of fear of contracting COVID-19 and approximately half of the workers did not receive any personal protective equipment from their employers. This study also examined the relationship between gig workers and their companies in the context of legal protections.

Herrera said gig workers lack reliable schedules, income and protections compared to traditional full-time employees.

“The California Supreme Court determined (gig workers) needed to pass a test to determine whether or not they were independent contractors or employees,” Herrera said. “A lot of gig workers now are able to receive those protections now, like a right to a minimum wage, … to medical insurance provided by an employer, (and) meal and rest breaks.”

California Assembly Bill 5 was one piece of state legislature designed to address the issue of gig workers not having access to full-time employee benefits, which, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, establishes the “ABC test” to determine whether workers are employees of a company or independent contractors.

Herrera said for companies to pass the ABC test to keep a worker as an independent contractor, they must prove they have minimal involvement with that employee’s work, the worker’s work is not essential to the company and the worker is able to complete similar work for other companies simultaneously. The ABC test was an intervention on behalf of workers regarding companies’ attempts to dismantle labor protections by hiring more gig workers to reduce labor costs, Herrera said.

Herrera added claims from companies like Uber and Lyft that they cannot offer scheduling flexibility to full time employees may not be legally justified.

“I think there’s nothing in the law that says employment arrangements need to be 9-to-5,” Herrera said. “There’s nothing prohibiting these companies from offering this flexibility under the worker model, and I think this is a false dichotomy that the companies are promulgating and selling to the public.”

Despite gig companies’ claims that the value of the gig economy comes from flexibility offered to workers, this study found many gig workers described their working conditions as anything but flexible, said Brian Justie, an education and information studies graduate student and researcher at the UCLA Labor Center.

Many workers told the report’s authors that gig companies constantly scrutinize their performance through a system of customer ratings, Justie added.

“One driver was saying the difference between a four-star and a five-star rating literally is potentially whether or not they have a livelihood,” Justie said. “And to get four stars might be because you talked too much to the rider or because you talked too little to your rider. It could be because you showed up early for your pickup. It could be because you showed up late for your pickup.”

Justie said the study was designed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate the Cooperative Economy Act, a proposed policy which SEIU-UHW created to introduce worker cooperatives to the gig economy. Worker cooperatives are companies that are owned by workers.

“This was an attempt to introduce more protections for workers and increase the amount of autonomy individual workers had in the gig economy,” Justie said. “Our job was to go out and talk to gig workers across the state … and just gather feedback that we could (take) back to (SEIU-UHW).”

According to The Atlantic, the employees of worker cooperatives democratically manage and govern their companies without a CEO or outside investors. In theory, this democratic oversight could lead employees to maximize workers’ benefits over profits during the pandemic, Justie said.

Ra Criscitiello, deputy director of research at SEIU-UHW, said the report was designed to get a broad understanding of worker reactions to the CEA, since much of the discussion prior to the report was centered on policy and healthcare workers.

“Outside of the legislation, we’ve also been working for a few years on understanding and supporting different workforce models that support worker ownership,” Criscitiello said.

The onset of COVID-19 cases in California in March caused the researchers to cancel meetings and reformulate the study, Justie said. The research team decided to ask gig workers how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted their jobs, he added.

“Ultimately, (the study) ties it together by … gathering data that would show that COVID impacted the gig economy very broadly and had very negative effects,” Justie said. “But most of the effects were already existent and they were just exacerbated by COVID-19.”

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Maanas Oruganti | Enterprise editor
Oruganti is the 2020-2021 Enterprise Editor. He was previously a News staff writer in the City & Crime and Science & Health beats. He is also a third-year cognitive science student at UCLA.
Oruganti is the 2020-2021 Enterprise Editor. He was previously a News staff writer in the City & Crime and Science & Health beats. He is also a third-year cognitive science student at UCLA.
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