Why do companies or agencies hire workers as independent contractors rather than regular laborers? In order to maximize profit, of course. Thus you have the Uber model of blatant exploitation that has built the company. In a world of extreme individualism, where people think working this way is freedom because it gives them a certain amount of control over how much they work and when, corporations have discovered many advantages to this system and encourage it through this language of individualism. Like subcontracting, franchising, temp work, and outsourcing, independent contractors shield employers from liability, training, wages, and benefits. It’s not too surprising to me that workers in some of these fields are starting to wake up to their own exploitation and that helps explain the sudden push toward union drives in new media, where you combine politically astute people laboring in this exploitative system.
So what happens when an independent contractor gets pregnant?
But she wasn’t like everyone else. Cetrone was a contractor, along with two other staffers at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and therefore not entitled to benefits like workers compensation or unemployment insurance — or more importantly when she became pregnant, the eight weeks of paid family leave that D.C. government employees get.
“They made us look to the public like we were full-time employees, but we didn’t have any of the benefits,” Cetrone says.
Cetrone thought it was unfair she’d have to take time off to have a baby without pay. But it didn’t strike her that there was anything untoward about it — until she began seeing reports on all the lawsuits over misclassification in the “sharing economy,” alleging that everyone from Uber drivers to Homejoy cleaners should be treated as employees rather than contractors.
“I started looking at my contract, and reading all the articles about Uber,” Cetrone says. “And I’m like, if these people are working 20 to 50 hours a week, then maybe my contract isn’t legal.”
When she raised her concerns, she soon found herself out of a job.
But if the District misstepped, it wouldn’t be the only one. Disputes over the role of contractors are becoming commonplace after the federal government and others outsourced many functions.
“I see this all the time,” says Alan Lescht, whose law firm deals largely with federal employees and contractors. “Companies think they can hire someone as an independent contractor to avoid paying benefits and overtime, and when they look carefully into their roles, more often than not they’ve been misclassified.”
And more people might be taking second looks at their contracts these days. The federal government and state labor agencies have been cracking down on misclassification, which allows companies to dodge taxes and other overhead associated with bringing on full-time employees, and is especially prevalent in low-wage industries like construction and trucking. But it happens in white-collar jobs too, and now the media attention is waking up those workers to the idea that their employers could be part of the trend.
This is why joint employer status is so important and why I hope the Obama NLRB will start moving in this direction. If you work in a place of employment, you should have the same status as everyone else working in that place of employment. We have to take away the incentive of using independent contractors or temps to avoid responsibility. And of course, as in the case above, the anti-government mentality among conservatives and Beltway elites since 1980 has contributed significantly to this problem by trying to shrink the size of government, thus forcing agencies to get creative in how they staff positions. Robust labor law is only a start, but an important start, in pushing back against this panoply of problems in our work lives.