Are America’s Workers Becoming Uberized?

UberizationC“The New Serfs,” is a term used synonymously with that other sobriquet, “the sharing economy,” as a way to describe the Uberization of America. Critics say the latter term has a softer touch than the former, but neither is palatable. Yet that’s what workers are increasingly becoming, thanks to a business model that’s redefining what it means to be employed in a tech-enabled, service-driven 21st century economy.

Consider this: If you drive for an app-based, ride-hailing service like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar — or maybe happen to fix leaky faucets by signing on with TaskRabbit to connect with buyers who have long to-do lists — odds are that app-enabled “gig” doesn’t include all or some of the following:
• Health Benefits
• Worker’s Comp
• Social Security
• Overtime
• The right to unionize

“The ‘sharing economy’ is mostly spin,” software developer Jon Evans wrote in a column for TechCrunch. “It mostly consists of people who have excess disposable income hiring those who do not.”

Uber was handed a huge defeat last September when U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco granted class action status to a lawsuit by drivers that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “could have sweeping implications” for anyone following the same business model. The core issue being: Are those behind the wheel “independent contractors” (as Uber claims) or “employees” entitled to a wide range of costly benefits (as drivers claim)?

“It will allow thousands of Uber drivers to participate in this case (and) challenge their misclassifications as independent contractors, as well as to attempt to recover the tips that Uber advertised to customers are included in the fare, but are not in fact distributed to the drivers,” attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who’s also representing Lyft drivers in a separate case, told the press while vowing to try to expand the suit nationwide.

A portent of things to come for Uber (which is planning to appeal the ruling): The California Labor Commission a few months earlier ruled that Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick was indeed an employee in a claim involving expenses.

“We’ve always said that all providers of ground transportation should be held to the same standard,” said Gary Buffo, president of the nonprofit National Limousine Association (limo.org). “That applies to drivers’ benefits, too.”

And, if you think you’re immune to the Uberization, you might think again.

A Bloomberg columnist recounted the increased “buzz” around the idea of turning white-collar work, which traditionally commands higher paychecks, into less expensive services that can be summoned as easily as a town car.

“An Uber for legal advice seems like a pretty good idea,” she wrote.