Independent contractors are a staple of the “gig economy”
Hiring workers as independent contractors (ICs), rather than employees, is a staple of many “gig economy” company business models. Uber and Lyft are two notable leaders in the new gig economy; nearly all of their drivers are ICs. These drivers work when they want – jumping in and out of service as their schedules allow, or when the feeling strikes that making a few dollars is more desirable than sitting down and marathoning their favorite TV show or writing the next great novel. The use of ICs isn’t contained to ride services, however. Maids on demand, grocery delivery, and online courier services are all types of companies that utilize armies of ICs.
ICs enjoy scheduling flexibility, greater control over tax planning, and a degree of independence and freedom not generally shared by the average employee. In return, they give up security, health benefits, and other things that are the hallmark of most full-time employment positions. There are pros and cons even for companies. ICs can be less devoted to the company than employees and, by law, companies can’t exert much control over ICs. This is why many companies do not like managing ICs.
Do a little online reading, and you are bound to come across articles vilifying the gig economy companies who use ICs. Read too many of these articles, and you may buy the myth that no IC wants to be an IC—that they are all pushed into this precarious status because companies won’t make them employees. Many online commentators are calling for the government to step up and curb the abuses of these companies.
The feds are asking questions, but ignoring the obvious
The Department of Labor (DOL) has prioritized the enforcement of misclassification of workers as ICs for several years. The DOL recently stated that whether a worker is classified as an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act is based on the “economic realities” test. The DOL listed the following questions to assist in making a determination:
- Is the work an integral part of the company’s business?
- Does the worker’s managerial skill affect the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss?
- How does the worker’s relative investment (this does not necessarily include tools or equipment) compare to the company’s investment?
- Does the work performed require special skill and initiative?
- Is the relationship between the worker and the company permanent or indefinite?
- What is the nature and degree of the company’s control?
Notably absent from the list of questions is the desire of the workers and companies themselves. The DOL isn’t concerned with how companies and workers would like to define their relationship. Shouldn’t that consideration enter into the determination?
The media’s skewed view of the gig economy
As discussed earlier, from the standpoint of each group, there are pros and cons to employee status versus IC status. Does each get exactly what they want, in every context? No, of course not. Let’s consider hypothetical worker, Pat, who values security and would love a full-time job. Not finding that full-time position, Pat starts driving for Uber as an IC. After a couple of months, Uber lets Pat go due to too many customer complaints. Now, Pat is back out of work and can’t claim unemployment.
It is possible that, if Uber had employed her as an employee, they would have hesitated to let her go so quickly? Pat did not get what she wanted – safe, full-time employment. If the media picks up on her story and spins it into a cautionary tale of the gig economy, we all forget about the many ICs who willingly embrace the arrangement. We also forget that Pat might be out of a job even if she had been hired by Uber as an employee.
We may overlook the fact that Pat received an opportunity in the first place.
If you think there will be the same amount of employment “gigs” to go around if all workers are required to be employees, you are incorrect. In most European countries, employers are required to give at least 90 days notice in order to terminate and employee. You may laud that regulation, which is fine, although it’s not debatable that employers who are required to make greater commitments to their hires are less inclined to hire until they know, with absolute certainty, that they need a new employee long-term.
The same thinking is at play with employees (even “at will” employees who can be let go at any time for almost any reason) versus ICs. Companies are quicker to hire the latter, slower to hire the former. Quick hiring is action that is pro-efficiency, pro-progress, pro-company, and pro-worker. Quick firing is the first three, obviously not the latter. On balance, there’s a strong argument that maximizing company flexibility is of the greatest benefit to our overall economic system. Hence why there isn’t ta ton of chatter in the U.S. for modifying the default “employment at will” standard.
Could a self-employed world would be a more productive economy?
So, why do so many people seem to believe that IC status is only good for the companies that engage the ICs and not the ICs themselves? Using IC labor may allow companies to be more nimble, reduce (if not eliminate) pay for periods of non-performance, incentivize workers to continually develop their skills, and demand that workers consistently perform at their peak in order to compete in a more fluid market for talent. All four of these outcomes are clearly pro-company.
However, the last two outcomes are also solidly pro-worker, at least if we gaze beyond the short-term. We all benefit from performance incentives and expectations from others to deliver our best. Admittedly, the process of shifting workers from employment status to IC status may be, for many, painful. Full-time employment is easier, it’s safer. That is exactly what makes it less efficient. It’s human nature to work harder when you need to, when it really matters. Does anyone doubt that, pound for pound, self-employed people work harder, are more dedicated, than regular employees? A world in which everyone was self-employed, no one collecting a steady paycheck, would translate into a more productive economy.
Is government intervention the answer?
But let’s say you completely disagree with me and feel that we’re not talking simply about a fundamental right of companies and workers to freely label their contractual working relationship. Let’s say you believe this is very clearly about companies using their leverage to push their agendas on reluctant workers. And, you also don’t buy my argument that the company flexibility of being able to hire and fire translates, quickly and directly, into pro-worker benefits. In that case, is government regulation the best way to address the problems at hand, to contain these Dickensian companies?
Government intervention has its limits, the primary one being that companies, just like the human beings that comprise them, don’t generally embrace things they are forced to do. They reluctantly comply. They do just enough.
Empowerment is shifting from companies to workers
Guess what’s more effective than using legislation to force companies to change? The free market when it works well. The relationship between companies and workers is changing rapidly and radically. Because we are living through it, it is sometimes difficult to step back and soak in just how much change has already occurred. Empowerment is shifting from companies to workers.
Today, the playing field is considerably leveled, if not slightly tilted in favor of the worker. Among the reasons for this tectonic shift are:
- Mobility: 100, even 50 years ago, workers were much less mobile. Our modes of transportation and attitudes about relocation have changed remarkably. Meanwhile, the rise of the telecommuter and virtual worker have made physical proximity to the workplace much less critical.
- Information: Glassdoor, Vault, and similar sites give workers information about which companies treat their workers well and which do not. Company reputations matter today in a big way.
- The Internet: In the Industrial Age, the means of production was the factory. Factories are expensive and, consequently, the few who could afford to build them, the “industrialists,” became fabulously wealthy while the rest of the population made ends meet. Today, the Internet is the most important means of production and it is just about free to everyone.
- The Freelance Movement: Freelancing is no longer viewed as something you pretend to do while you’re really scouring for full-time employment. The freelance movement is bestowing a level of independence on workers that was previously unheard-of. Over one-third of the American work force is now made up of freelance workers. According to a new report by the Roosevelt Institute and the Kauffman Foundation, our economy will be “scarcely recognizable” in 25 years, as this number is expected to balloon.
Though full time employment is safer, it is much less empowering. Daniel Priestley, author of Key Person of Influence, speaks about the transition that we are living through from an industrial economy to an entrepreneurial one. He points out that the owners of capital in an industrial economy, the factory-owning industrials we spoke of earlier, are motivated to keep workers just content enough – content enough to keep doing their jobs and to not challenge the system. Employers don’t want to make their employees wealthy and financially independent, because that isn’t ideal for controlling employees. As a society, we can legislate these employers to do a little more – provide more time off, better health care benefits, etc., but they will always do just enough when forced to act. And, “just enough” will never be all that fulfilling for the employees.
Workers have been handed a golden opportunity to wrestle power from companies
Companies can’t control ICs like they do employees. ICs that work for multiple companies have the leverage in the relationship. It’s game-on and it’s not from unionizing and government intervention. Workers are gaining power due to a shifting work landscape. They are gaining power by disuniting.
Admittedly, some workers are not embracing this opportunity with open arms. For them, it may take a while to see the seeds of opportunity planted in this “problem.” As a society, if we adopt the paternalistic viewpoint that companies must give workers employment (as opposed to IC) status, we are disrupting a natural, positive, and powerful rebalancing that is at work in the market. In doing so, we would unwittingly be undermining the power and long-term well being of the very constituency we seek to protect.
We should all be freelancers, self-employed, entirely responsible for ourselves
Those anachronisms of the bygone era of lifetime employment – frothy pensions, gold watch retirement ceremonies, etc. – are not coming back. We can beg the government to step in and try to hold on to the last vestiges of that era, but we will at best be hanging on by a thin thread. And, the security employees seek? It’s been gone for a long time. My parents and their peers expected lifetime employment. No one my age and below expects that.
We all recognize our companies are unlikely to out survive us. In today’s increasingly quick, hyper-competitive, global economy, friction in the employment market is the default standard. There is simply no longer any real security in being a private-sector employee. However, empowered ICs aren’t at the mercy of individual employers. Their security is self-determined.
This is one fight we don’t want the government to win
Many workers are embracing the new gig economy and its flexibility. The option to work as an IC shouldn’t be ripped away due to a misguided sense of paternalism. The process of shifting from employee to IC is challenging for many, and often full of risks, but the ultimate reward of a successful shift is freedom and empowerment. Let’s not force workers to trade the pursuit of those treasures for vision, dental and ten days off per year.
The secret to self improvement isn’t always about improvements
(EDITORIAL) Self improvement and happiness go hand in hand, but are you getting lost in the mechanics of self improvement?
Think back to your New Year’s resolutions. Now that it’s summer, how many of them are you still keeping? Think about which ones stuck and what went by the wayside.
If you’re like most of us, you had big plans to make yourself better but didn’t stay the course. I’ve only managed to keep one of my resolutions, but it isn’t always easy.
I want to take a look at why we can’t keep our goals. I think we’re always on a journey of self-improvement. It’s easy to get obsessed with reading self-help books or trying to learn new things. We want to be better. This spring, I went through a Lent study with a group of people. Lent is a time of growth and self-reflection, just six weeks. And yet many of us are struggling to keep up with the daily reading or maintaining a fast of something we willingly chose to give up.
Why do we fail?
I think we fail because of three things.
You might think I’m going to say something like we fail because we don’t have willpower, but I think that is the farthest thing from the truth. I’m no therapist, but I’ve read the literature on alcohol and drug rehab. It’s not willpower that keeps a person sober. It’s community. One reason I think we fail at our goals is that we don’t have a cheerleading team. I believe that we need people on our side when we’re trying to improve.
Secondly, I think we fail because we want immediate results. We have this mentality that things should happen quickly. I’ve written about this before. It’s like you workout once and want that swimsuit body. We get frustrated when we don’t see results right away. So, we move on to the next pursuit.
Do your goals lead to happiness?
Failure can also be because self-improvement goals don’t always lead to being better person. We do a lot of things because “we should.” Your doctor might think you need to lose weight. Maybe your boss wants you to be a better speaker. Meditation should make you a better person. Maybe you ran a marathon, and now you think you need to run an ultramarathon because that’s what your best friend did.
What makes you happy isn’t always what you should be doing.
Your doctor might be right, but if you’re choosing to lose weight because you want to make your doctor happy, you’re probably not going to stick with a program. If you’re trying to learn Spanish to make your boss happy, again, you’re probably not going to enjoy it enough to really learn. If you’re chasing after goals just to say you’ve done it, what value do your achievements bring to your life?
If you’re obsessed because you “should” do something, you’re going to get burned out and fail. Whether it’s New Year’s resolutions, a self-improvement project or giving up meat for Lent, you need solid reasons for change. And if you give something a try that isn’t for you, don’t soldier on. You don’t need to spend years taking yoga classes if you don’t enjoy it.
When something becomes a burden rather than bringing benefits, maybe it’s time to take a look at why you’re doing it.
When you don’t know why you’re knocking yourself out to be better, maybe you need to figure out a reason. And if you feel as if what you’re doing isn’t enough, stop and figure out what will satisfy you.
I’ve been doing a lot of meal prepping on the weekends. Sometimes, I want to quit. But it pays off because I have less to do throughout the week. It might seem like a burden, but the benefits outweigh the burdens. I’ve been able to eat much healthier and use more vegetables in my meals, which is the one goal I’ve been able to keep. I have some good friends that help me stay on track, too. I choose to eat more vegetables for my health. I think it’s a combination of all these things that is helping me meet my goal this year.
Don’t give up on making yourself a better person. Just don’t become obsessed over the program. Look at the outcome. Are you pursing happiness on a treadmill or are you really working to find happiness?
What I wish I knew about finances in my 20s
(EDITORIAL) They say money makes the world go round. So, let’s discuss how to be smart with finances before it’s too late.
Being in my early twenties, something I’m still getting used to is the fact that I’m making my own money. This is not to be confused with the babysitting money I was making 10 years ago.
Twice a month is the same routine: I get my paycheck and think, “Wooo! We goin’ out tonight!” but then I snap back to reality and think about what that money needs to be put towards. The smallest part of it going towards fun.
It’s been tricky to really start learning the ins and outs of finances. So, I do what I usually do in any type of learning process? I ask for advice.
I used to be fixated on asking those more advanced in age than I what they wish they knew when they were my age. Now that I’m determined to learn about finances, that question has been altered.
I reached out to a few professionals I know and trust and they gave me solid feedback to keep in mind about building my finances, about what they wish they had known in their 20s. However, I don’t think this only applies to those just starting out, and may be helpful for all of us.
“It’s important to simply know the value of money,” says human resource expert, Nicole Clark. “I think once you start earning your own money and are responsible for your housing, food, etc. you realize how valuable money is and how important it is to budget appropriately and make sure you’re watching your spending.”
Law firm executive director, Michael John, agrees with Clark’s sentiments. “I wish I had kept the value of saving in mind when I was younger,” explains John. “But, still remembering to balance savings while rewarding yourself and enjoying what your efforts produce.”
There are so many aspects of finance to keep in mind – saving, investing, budgeting, retirement plans, and so on and so forth.
In addition to suggesting to spend less than you make and to pay off your credit card in full each month, Kentucky-based attorney, Christopher Groeschen, explained the importance of a 401k.
“Every employee in America should be contributing everything they can into a 401k every year, up to the current $18,000 maximum per person,” suggests Groeschen.
“401ks present an opportunity for young investors to 1) learn about investing and 2) enter the market through a relatively low-risk vehicle (depending on your allocations),” he observes.
“An additional benefit is that 401ks also allow employees to earn FREE MONEY through employer matches,” he continues. “At the very least, every employee should contribute the amount necessary to earn the employer match (usually up to 4%) otherwise, you are giving up the opportunity to earn FREE MONEY. Earning FREE MONEY from your employer that is TAX FREE is much more important than having an extra Starbucks latte every day.”
Whether we like it or not, money is a core aspect of our daily lives. It should never be the most important thing, but we cannot deny that it is, in fact, an important thing. It’s tricky to learn, but investing in my future has become a priority.
This editorial was first published in May 2018.
How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future
(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.
Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:
Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.
Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.
Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.
The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.
And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.
We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.
That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.
Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.
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