Uber’s Next Idea: A New Labor Law

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Gig workers for Uber, Lyft, Instacart and other companies are classified in the United States as independent contractors who have significant flexibility but aren’t entitled to standard employment protections, including a minimum wage and paid sick days. During the pandemic, the lack of a safety net for these workers has been glaring.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, argued in The New York Times this week for a “third way” — a new employment status with the flexibility of contract work but also some employee-like protections.

This comes as a law in California that seeks to reclassify Uber and Lyft workers as employees puts Uber’s business at risk. But does Khosrowshahi have a point? Uber has created new job options, and employment law wasn’t written with apps in mind.

Khosrowshahi is also asking us to consider a big picture question: Is it better to have more work with less of a safety net, or fewer but arguably better jobs?

I talked to Noam Scheiber, who writes about workers and work for The Times, to assess Uber’s proposal.

Shira: What do you think about this “third way” worker status?

Noam: It is not a crazy idea in principle. But many experts would say that it’s not clear this third category is really needed. Uber says drivers like being able to work only when they want to. Well, there is nothing that would require Uber to take away drivers’ flexibility if they were classified as employees. Companies are entitled to parcel the day into 10-minute or one-hour chunks or whatever, and let employees claim a shift in an app.

What about Khosrowshahi’s proposal to create a pool of cash that workers can use for health insurance, paid time off or other benefits?

Uber can do that on its own right now. But there’s a risk to the company. If a worker is dependent on a company for insurance, it starts to look more like the legal definition of an employer-employee relationship. That undermines Uber’s argument in court cases that it’s not the employer of drivers.

Are there holes in employment law that a “third way” addresses?

If someone is logged in to work simultaneously for Uber, Lyft, Postmates and Shipt, it’s not clear who the employer is between jobs. There are ways of resolving this, but that’s one example of ways that gig work doesn’t fit the current employment system.

Is Khosrowshahi right that classifying drivers as company employees would increase the cost of many Uber rides and force it to have fewer drivers?

Most likely, yes. Certainly the profitability of rides would go down for Uber, and service would likely disappear in some low-demand neighborhoods.

That’s arguably because fares for Uber rides are artificially low now, because drivers are effectively subsidizing them by getting lower compensation than they would as employees.

But it’s fair to ask: As a matter of public policy, do we want drivers to subsidize Uber fares for passengers? If we agree that people in areas with lower demand should have access to Uber at an affordable price, then we can think about more of the cost shifting to taxpayers or to Uber itself.

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I know it’s easy to tune out tales of horrible things on the internet. Please pay attention to this one.

NBC News wrote an illuminating article about Facebook’s internal research that showed millions of people following Facebook groups and pages that support QAnon, a sprawling and false conspiracy claiming a traitorous cabal dominates government and other institutions.

The scale of QAnon supporters on Facebook stunned me, and the article raised two questions for me about how Facebook feeds this and other dangerous ideas:

Why do online recommendations still exist? NBC News found that Facebook’s computerized suggestions have pointed people toward online groups revolving around the QAnon conspiracy. Journalists and misinformation researchers have raised the alarm for years about computer recommendations on YouTube, Facebook and other spots that harden people’s belief in dangerous ideas.

What if, as my colleague Kevin Roose suggested about YouTube, we just turn off these internet recommendations? NBC News said that Facebook may, in fact, do that for QAnon-related groups, as it previously did to stop recommending online groups that oppose vaccines. That doesn’t stop people from wallowing in conspiracies online, but it makes it more difficult for newcomers to stumble onto dangerous ideas.

Why is Facebook researching this only now? NBC News wrote that Facebook had been “studying the QAnon movement since at least June.” (A Facebook spokesperson told NBC News that the company consistently punishes or removes QAnon-related groups that violate the social network’s rules.)

It has been clear for years that internet sites are where conspiracy theorists organize and, for some, become radicalized. We’ve seen examples for more than two years of people who believe in the QAnon conspiracy committing violence in the real world.

Did Facebook really start systematically researching its role in the conspiracy only a few months ago?

  • The legal fight over our faces: Clearview AI, which has compiled billions of people’s internet photos for a searchable human database, hired a prominent First Amendment lawyer to defend the company in lawsuits that accuse it of violating privacy laws. My colleague Kash Hill talked to the lawyer, Floyd Abrams, who said that the company planned to assert a free-speech right to disseminate publicly available photos. (Abrams also said that he hadn’t tried Clearview AI’s app, in part because he doesn’t own a smartphone.)

  • Your periodic reminder of how we’ve lost control of our digital data: The investigative news outlet The Intercept writes about ways that law enforcement is demanding information about TikTok users in possible investigations.

    A big worry about TikTok is that because it’s owned by a Chinese company, it may be forced to hand over data on Americans to the Chinese government. U.S. law enforcement has to go through legal channels to get information on us, but the article is a useful reminder that digital flotsam from all apps can be used against us in ways we never expected.

  • I have never seen so many people’s kitchens and living rooms. There’s a chef webcasting himself fixing dinner, and a high school tutor broadcasting conversations about teaching math. The Wall Street Journal writes about how the pandemic has pushed more people to post live videos of themselves — and has compelled more of us to watch, filling a void in personal interactions.

Honestly, this six-foot-long Furby doll is giving me nightmares. (And the replies in this Twitter thread are fun.) Please enjoy!

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